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Thai junta in showdown at Buddhist temple gates

Religious backlash looms as devotees defy police attempts to arrest charismatic abbot

Phra Pasura Dantamano of Wat Phra Dhammakaya points to a police notice attached near a gate of the temple. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

PATHUM THANI, Thailand -- An air of siege hangs around the perimeter of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Thailand's largest and wealthiest Buddhist temple, in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok.

Checkpoints manned by police and soldiers monitor movements on the five roads leading to this sprawling complex. The police have placed warning notices at 12 of the temple's 14 gates, attracting attention among white-clad devotees, many of them middle-aged women. The signs indicate that the temple is under official investigation.

There are more indications of police activity within the temple's 400-hectare site. More signs can be seen on 26 buildings within its gates, including the residences of monks and novices, and a building that houses a kitchen. The notices are a short distance from the temple's iconic flying saucer-shaped stupa -- a structure containing religious relics used for meditation -- which can house 600,000 devotees. On "mass meditation days," devotees gather in the massive open square or forecourt of the stupa.

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is by far the most influential Buddhist temple in Thailand, the world's most populous Theravada Buddhist country, with an estimated 10 million followers drawn from meditation centers across the nation's 77 provinces, university Buddhist clubs and many other layers of Thai society.

The Theravada Buddhist tradition emphasizes personal meditation and a monastic path to enlightenment. But after months of friction within Thailand's Buddhist Sangha, or supreme council, mounting tensions between monks here and the security forces present a formidable challenge to the authority of Thailand's military-led government.

Confrontation has been brewing since June 2016, when thousands of devotees chanting Buddhist prayers blocked the gates of the temple to stop a police raid intended to arrest its influential chief abbot, 72-year-old Luang Por Dhammajayo, who faces charges relating to allegations of money-laundering and embezzlement. Temple officals deny the charges, saying the abbot is innocent and willing to cooperate in a judicial inquiry.

Devotees mounted similar resistance to subsequent police operations through the rest of the year. The most recent, before dawn on Dec. 27, precipitated a stand-off that lasted through the morning, until the riot-clad police retreated.

The raids have raised the specter of a religious conflict that could trigger a new fault line in a country already polarized by political, social and economic differences. But they have also come to be seen as a gauge of the junta's muscle, casting Wat Phra Dhammakaya as the only organization the ruling generals have failed to subdue since they took power in May 2014.

Police and other officials have failed to enforce charges filed against the temple's monks -- including for providing refuge to the fugitive abbot, and for the construction of buildings in the compound without state approval -- add to the growing perception that the junta may have met an unlikely match. At the last count, more than 150 charges had been laid against the temple for multiple violations, prompting one monk to note, with a hint of sarcasm, that "we cannot keep track of" the total.

The Department of Special Investigations, an arm of Thailand's criminal justice system, suggested in early January that a combined force of riot police and soldiers was needed to seize the abbot, who is said to be sick and hiding in the temple.

However, devotees such as Virongrong Ratanachaya, a 70-year-old Bangkok resident, say that the temple will not be an easy target for the military regime, unlike Thailand's opposition political parties, who caved in meekly to the junta's pressure.

Raiding party

"We have been through many threats, accusations and rumors many times, but this time has been the worst," said Virongrong, who was among hundreds of devotees who rushed to the temple after being woken by phone calls about the police raiding party on Dec. 27. "We will come if they try to raid again, to protect our temple," she said.

The junta could also face international pressure generated by the temple's 90 centers outside Thailand. In late 2016, Wat Phra Dhammakaya representatives in the United States petitioned the White House and lodged a complaint with a U.S. congressman about the junta's attempted raids, which critics say amount to a violation of human rights and religious freedom.

"This is a very sensitive issue because it involves faith, and it will be easy to mobilize people," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank. "The military is making daily assessments of Dhammakaya's strengths, trying to contain it and approach it like a war of attrition."

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who heads the junta, is under pressure from regime supporters to put an end to the confrontation by mounting a bigger and more successful raid. A Bangkok-based diplomat said that Prayuth "appears weak" to those snapping at his heels -- a group of ultra-conservatives who supported the coup and have endorsed the junta's iron grip. "He is losing legitimacy in their eyes over the stalled raids at Wat Dhammakaya," the diplomat said.

The temple has weathered difficult periods before. Since its emergence in the 1970s as part of a Buddhist reform wave, Wat Phra Dhammakaya has courted controversy because of its religious practices, which place a heavy emphasis on meditation, and reports that devotees have been charged during merit-making rituals.

Some critics have called it a "deviant Buddhist sect," despite its recognition by the country's Buddhist authorities. Mano Laohavanich, a prominent Buddhist scholar, accuses the fugitive abbot of being "inspired by Hitler and being obsessed with power."

Others see the rise of Wat Phra Dhammakaya in a more conciliatory light, regarding it as one of several Buddhist reform movements that emerged at a time when largely agrarian Thailand was transforming into a more urban and industrialized nation. They say that Dhammakaya permitted its devotees to "embrace capitalism and be good Buddhists."

Some of the temple's wealthiest followers, including real estate, entertainment, media and telecommunication tycoons, epitomize that reality. They include Boonchai Bencharongkul, founder of Total Access Communication, a mobile phone network operator, who urged devotees to gather at the temple last year to protect the abbot.

In the 1970s, as the Cold War raged, the temple was accused of harboring communists. In the 1990s, as Thailand became more affluent, it was accused of being pro-capitalist. Later, it was accused of supporting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a bete noire of the ultra-conservative political establishment, which backed a 2006 military coup that ejected him from power.

The temple's monks are aware of their predicament. "Whenever Thailand is in political turmoil, Dhammakaya has been a target," said Phra Pasura Dantamano, head of the temple's international relations division. "Some people are afraid that if we choose sides it may undermine those in power."

For now, the temple appears to be taking the "Buddhist side" by turning to its white-clad disciples to protect its sacred precincts and its charismatic high priest. In doing so, it is daring Prayuth to fire the first shot.

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