Thai police have raided a Buddhist temple complex to arrest a popular abbot accused of embezzlement but were thwarted by thousands of his followers who said he is too ill to be taken into custody.
The operation at Wat Dhammakaya, a monastery north of Bangkok known as one of the wealthiest in Thailand, began in the early hours and was broadcast live on TV in a dramatic twist to a months-old stand-off.
The arrest warrant is still valid so we will have authority to carry out the operation. According to our information, he is still insideMajor Suriya Singhakamol
However, hours later police could not arrest the abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, after searching all the areas in the complex but one.
Mr Dhammachayo is accused of money laundering and links to embezzling £28 million from a now-defunct credit union.
“There is a last area we could not enter because the followers would not allow us,” said police Major Suriya Singhakamol, the deputy chief of the department of special investigations.
Mr Dhammachayo’s case has enthralled the nation with its twists and turns and the conflict between law and religion it has posed.
Several scandals in recent years have cast a shadow over the Buddhist clergy in Thailand.
Although the police withdrew for the day after the fruitless raid, Mr Suriya said “our operation has not ended. The arrest warrant is still valid so we will have authority to carry out the operation. According to our information, he is still inside.”
He has barricaded himself inside his temple, ignoring three police summonses and an arrest warrant.
He has avoided arrest for more than two months, claiming he was too ill to report to police for questioning.
Outside of Thailand it may seem odd that a monk should be able to defy law-enforcement officials so brazenly.
However, a law which forbids arrest of a monk in his robes, for fear it would mar the sanctity of the clergy, has repeatedly put police in an awkward position.
Authorities are also reluctant to force a showdown with the monk’s thousands of supporters, fearing violence.
Buddhism is the national religion and one of three core pillars of Thai society along with the monarchy and nationhood.
Monks occupy a privileged position and are granted many concessions, including not paying taxes and being exempt from arrest until they are defrocked.
Their unique position in Thai society was reflected in the police operation – they paused the raid to allow the monks to eat their once-a-day meal at 11am.