Scuffles broke out at the mega Dhammakaya temple yesterday, where thousands of followers have dug in their heels after police ordered those with no residence inside to leave the sprawling compound.
Fears that the authorities would cut water and electricity to the area have not come true so far, but a brief commotion broke out in the morning after devotees attempted to push through a police barricade.
Last week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha authorised officials to use all necessary means to find the temple's fugitive honorary abbot Phra Dhammachayo, raising fears of a brutal crackdown by the military government. He is believed to be holed up inside the compound, which covers more than 400ha, at least four times the size of Singapore Botanic Gardens.
The influential Buddhist temple, which critics claim is a deviant cult, poses a special predicament for the military government, which has snuffed out public protests quickly since it came to power in a 2014 coup.
Thousands of Dhammakaya's devotees deterred Thai investigators from entering the compound just outside Bangkok twice last year.
The 72-year-old Phra Dhammachayo has cited ill health for not answering summons over fraud allegations linked to a multi-billion baht embezzlement case, as well as his alleged ties to meditation centres built on public land.
More than 4,000 security officials massed at the temple are now operating under a special order issued last week that makes the temple a "controlled area" and gives them legal immunity over any action they take to perform their duties.
Temple representatives would not confirm the abbot's presence and security officers have failed to find him since they started their search last Thursday.
The Department of Special Investigation's (DSI's) deputy chief Songsak Raksaksakul told reporters last evening the search will continue wherever he flees. "Even if (he) flees to other countries, we could work on extradition too," he said.
DSI on Sunday ordered all lay followers and non-resident monks to leave the temple grounds. In response, hundreds of devotees who had been gathering outside broke through police barricades to enter it.
"They asked everyone to move out. That's a hint that they are going to seize the temple," said one of Dhammakaya's followers who is inside the compound.
"There is no way of knowing what will happen to our property, which came from the donations of the people. So it's better to stay here to protect it," the 35-year-old businessman who wanted to be known as "Bbet" told The Straits Times over the phone.
While Dhammakaya claims there are 30,000 people inside its compound, the DSI puts that figure at 6,000.
On Sunday evening, followers wore plastic raincoats in anticipation of the police using water cannon on them. Monks and followers also wore face masks to avoid being identified and prosecuted.
With hordes of local and international media camped out nearby, devotees also held up handwritten signs in Thai, English and Chinese alleging injustice. "Treat innocent people fairly," one read.
Meanwhile, 14 Dhammakaya monks ordered to report to the DSI outside the temple on Sunday did not do so. One of those , Phra Sanitwong Wuthiwangso, told reporters yesterday: "I wish I could go. But I was not sure if I could return because there were some people who reported to the police and haven't come back."
This article was first published on Feb 21, 2017.
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