Abbot Phra Dhammachayo (C) arrives for a ceremony at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok on Makha Bucha Day, March 4, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police prepared to raid a Buddhist temple north of Bangkok on Thursday and apprehend its influential abbot, a justice ministry unit said, the latest twist in a series of scandals that has shaken Thailand's dominant faith.
The wealthy and influential Dhammakaya temple is at the centre of religious tensions and its 72-year-old abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, is accused of conspiring to launder money by accepting stolen cash from a credit union.
His followers deny the allegations and claim the charges are politically motivated.
Thursday's planned raid is the latest development in a stand-off between investigators and the Buddhist sect after Dhammachayo, citing ill health, failed to appear at a police station to answer graft charges last month.
The controversy feeds into more than a decade of political divisions in Thailand, which have permeated all aspects of life, including religion.
By early morning, the large southern gate to the sprawling Dhammakaya temple complex was shut, although it was not blocked by backhoes as it had been during previous confrontations.
On the other side, hundreds of Dhammakaya followers dressed mainly in white sat in a warm drizzle in front of sect's UFO-shaped central stupa, which holds precious relics.
There were no obvious signs of soldiers in the vicinity.
However, scores of Thai riot police waited at a nearby government office. They were equipped with shields and helmets but were otherwise unarmed, Reuters witnesses said.
Some question whether Thursday's attempt by police to enter the temple with a warrant will achieve anything and whether it was simply political theatre.
Thailand's ruling junta, which took power in a bloodless coup in May 2014, has not commented on the raid and has been reluctant to weigh in on the graft allegations in the past.
"We have made it clear that the execution of this task must be done in an orderly manner and without any injuries," deputy chief Police Major Suriya Singhakamol of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) told reporters at the temple.
The DSI, which operates independently of the police, is a justice ministry department that deals with the investigation of cases involving high-ranking officials.
Prachim Samahasapan, 59, a housewife and Dhammakaya follower, came to give the abbot moral support but said there wasn't much they could do to stop the police.
"All we can do is sit and meditate," she said.
"Arresting him is uncalled for. It's not like he killed someone," she said.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Paul Tait)