Last month was the Thai military government’s chance to really shine; to make good on its promise to arrest the disgraced former abbot of the country’s embattled Buddhist sect, and prove it was more than bluff and bluster.
Around 4,000 police and special investigation officers had surrounded Wat Phra Dhammakaya — a 400-hectare complex shaped like a flying saucer outside Bangkok — for three weeks, blocking anyone one from entering while also restricting delivery of food and medical supplies.
The mission was to nab Phra Dhammajayo, who is wanted on charges of money laundering, forest encroachment, and embezzlement, and now just an ordinary monk after King Vajiralongkorn stripped him of his monastic rank.
For the first time since mid-last year when tensions escalated as thousands of followers blocked police from raiding the temple, it seemed the government was finally organized and determined to make an arrest after a series of blunders, delays and deliberations.
So it came as an anticlimax when on March 10 the government announced it had ended its search, empty-handed, reasoning that Dhammajayo had fled the temple.
The announcement was a victory for followers, who cheered and hugged each other shortly after the news broke in a nearby area they had made to continue their prayers and protest the siege.
“I love him even more,” Sunanta Saekhon, a 46-year-old supporter said of Dhammajayo, dismissing the allegations against him as government propaganda to destroy the temple.
Sunanta joined the temple a year ago to find inner peace, inspired by the sect’s heavily marketed meditation programs and the monk’s almost mythic persona.
She said that far from disrupting the organization, the siege has made the community stronger and even drawn sympathy from people who had viewed the temple with suspicion.
“We have more supporters, because we protested peacefully, and people saw the military’s actions were unjust.”
On the Backfoot
For the military, the widespread criticism it has endured over its heavy handed approach to human rights, political and media freedoms, and dissent provided ammunition for the temple.
Photos of police clashing with Dhammakaya monks during the siege, the suicide of a man protesting the raid, and devotees on hunger strike — all thumbed a dark smudge on an operation that was devolving into farce. The temple’s disciples had even threatened to complain to the United Nations, though no grievance was actually lodged.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer on international affairs at Naresuan University, said the junta had handled the situation “miserably” and was risking making martyrs of the Dhammakaya monks.
The government had no choice but to retreat and fight another day.
What is Dhammakaya?
Dhammakaya was founded in 1970 by a handful of members. It has since grown into a worldwide organization with about 90 branches outside Thailand. It has TV and radio stations and a monthly magazine.
Back when it was founded, its teachings were in line with traditional Buddhism and had none of the commercial and dark undertones for which it has drawn criticism and notoriety, said Mano Laohavanich, a member of the temple for 22 years until he defected in 1994.
In 1983, Dhammajayo took over the running of the temple from its then-leader, a revered nun who helped found the temple and whose Alzheimer’s was worsening.
He ramped up its moneymaking operations by taking the teachings in a more cynical direction. Followers were promised a space in heaven depending on how much cash they donated. The more they gave, the higher in heaven they would go.
Similar fanciful tales include Dhammajayo’s claims that he met Buddha himself, an encounter that inspired the design of the temple’s unusual Buddha statues, and that he can reverse people’s bad karma.
This concoction of myth and miracle have created a bulletproof cult of personality that is beyond question or reproach among followers: anyone who doubts his stories is immediately expelled from the temple.
The temple’s monthly magazine regularly lists its disciples’ success stories. It is said one woman found her perennially lifeless lime tree thick with fruit, and one man became rich enough to afford a BMW, as a result of following the temple’s strict meditation program.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a scholar of Buddhism and law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the temple operates with corporate-like efficiency and organization, running Buddhist societies in many Thai universities through which it recruits members, and aggressively expanding.
“Many temples have become deserted. Dhammakaya has taken over them and stationed its own monks there,” he said.
Stephen B. Young, an American professor who was looking to promote Theravada Buddhism studies in the United States when he met the leaders of the temple in 2011, said the encounter left him gobsmacked.
“My jaw dropped. The prayer hall was like three U.S. football fields,” he said. The hall can fit around half a million people during mass meditation events.
Young said the temple’s set up, from its Buddhist statues to its stories to its leaders, is geared towards promoting power.
“I said, ‘this isn’t Thai Buddhism. I don’t know what it is but this isn’t Theravada Buddhism.’”
Talking about the temple’s number two, Dattajivo, Young said: “This was not a religious man; in his words, in his face in his eyes, this was a man of power.”
As for Dhammajayo, “He basically doesn’t see anybody.”
Many say the government’s motivation for arresting the monk is to disrupt the temple and its links to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a thorn in the side of the conservative establishment, who has been living in self-imposed exile since he was overthrown in a coup in 2006.
But some say the temple’s ideology goes deeper than modern politics to the reign of the 18th century King Taksin, or Taksin the Great, who was executed during a rebellion in 1782.
Mano, the former monk at the temple, said that it seeks to “return power to the righteous one,” Thaksin Shinawatra, who they believe is a reincarnation of King Taksin.
Young said that during his meeting with Dhammakaya, its leaders were expounding the need to drive the dark power — perceived as the army, the civil service, and the Democrat party — out of Thailand and bring in the light.
Young said these ideas are similar to those of the “red shirts,” the pro-Thaksin political group, and China’s White Lotus, a secret political and religious movement that surfaced as an ideology of peasant rebellion between the 14th and 19th centuries.
“There’s a social political agenda here of bringing justice to Thailand, justice in the context of the red shirt political movement,” said Young.
He added that a source close to the sect told him the temple had facilitated the transportation of thousands of red shirt supporters from Isan, Thailand’s northeast regions, to Bangkok during the bloody political protests of 2010 to remove the Democrat-led government.
Pulling the plug on the siege was necessary, analysts say, to prevent the standoff turning violent. Authorities recently found a huge cache of weapons at the home of a hardcore red shirt leader, which they believe were going to be used against authorities around the temple.
Such a deepening of the political divide is exactly what the military wants to avoid as it looks to “return to democracy” and hold elections next year.
Mano believes Dhammajayo is still in the temple, having evaded authorities with a carefully staged “search” led by its leaders. But the outcome of the raid is a “win-win situation” nevertheless for the government.
The temple’s devotee numbers have been decimated in the last couple of years, falling from 2 million to around 200,000 as followers lose faith, with more expected to leave following this recent episode, and as infighting begins for the top job, he said.
The temple will also come under the remit of the Sangha council, the Buddhist governing body, stripping it of its independence and likely forcing it to be more transparent.
“They have to change and reform to survive,” Mano said.
But for supporters like Sunanta, any straight-jacketing of the organization will only make things worse.
“If the council sends outsiders to look after the temple, we won’t accept that,” she said. “This temple belongs to its supporters.”
George Styllis and Patthiya Tongfueng are both freelance journalists based in Bangkok, Thailand.