BANGKOK (Reuters) - A stand-off between security forces and monks at Thailand’s biggest temple has exposed a struggle as much about power as religion in the predominantly Buddhist country, where the junta has shut down dissent since a 2014 coup.
For the past week, some 4,000 police and soldiers have surrounded the Dhammakaya temple, which practices a form of Buddhism at odds with conservatives. It is widely seen as linked to the populist movement of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - which the temple firmly denies - and its size makes it increasingly influential.
Dhammakaya has created the most visible challenge to the authorities since the coup by refusing for months to hand over its former abbot - wanted for money laundering - and by frustrating a police search.
“It is trying to create unrest and subverting state power,” said Paiboon Nititawan, a former senator appointed by the military to a council on solving Thailand’s problems.
Thai society traditionally has three pillars: nation, monarchy and religion.
The establishment controls the first two through the junta and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who appointed a conservative as Supreme Patriarch for Thailand’s 300,000 monks days before the temple confrontation.
Dhammakaya is of a different scale to over 40,000 other temples. Its headquarters outside Bangkok covers nearly 10 times the area of the Vatican and is completed by a UFO-shaped golden temple dome. Since 1970, it has established over 90 branches in 35 countries.
The temple runs television stations, slick websites and active social media accounts. It holds choreographed ceremonies of tens of thousands of people.
Yet Dhammakaya’s millions of adherents are still a minority within Thailand’s almost entirely Buddhist population.
Its fundraising has made Dhammakaya much richer than other temples - and angered critics who say it has deserted Theravada Buddhist teachings to shun material possessions.
Parallels are drawn to China’s Falun Gong and Turkey’s Gulenists. Both were fast growing religious groups using modern methods, which were suppressed when their influence grew too great.
A spokesman for the Department of Special Investigation said the government’s aim was only to bring in the temple’s influential former abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, in a way that respects Buddhism.
The temple says the 72-year-old monk is very ill and has not been seen for months.
It questions charges against him, some of which relate to money allegedly embezzled from a credit union that lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Monks say they have cooperated fully with the search.
“We have never been involved in any political affairs,” said Phra Pasura Dantamano, a senior monk.
“Every project we have conducted is transparent. If anyone fears a threat, it’s only those who obtained power improperly,” he said. “All we do is teach monks, teach self discipline, meditation. Is that wrong?”
The temple rejects any link to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra or his ‘red-shirt’ followers. Weng Tojirakarn, a red shirt leader, also told Reuters there was no link.
Regardless, both groups represent newcomers whose power threatened - or could threaten - the establishment’s hold.
Dhammakaya is explicit that giving brings merit. When that “bears fruit”, it brings more wealth, which means more donations - to support Buddhist activities.
Such activities have expanded Dhammakaya’s influence.
By helping temples in hard times, it has brought dozens into its orbit. That in turn increased its support on the Sangha religious council, Buddhism’s governing body.
Critics say its influence grew too great.
“Nirvana is for sale and the more you give, the better you become,” said Mano Laohavanich a former Dhammakaya monk but now a strong critic. “It’s like a parasite, which has taken control of Thai Buddhism.”
Three members of the Sangha council declined to comment on Dhammakaya. So did the government’s National Office of Buddhism.
The showdown for control began last year when the Sangha recommended a candidate for Supreme Patriarch with links to Dhammakaya and was under investigation over taxes on a vintage car.
The junta rejected that candidate. Then, when the new king took the throne in December, the law was changed to let him choose a patriarch and ignore the Sangha’s wishes.
Four days after a new patriarch, chosen from Thai Buddhism’s more austere fraternity, was installed the junta declared emergency powers over Dhammakaya.
The problem for police is how to pass through chanting, saffron-robed monks when violence against them would be taboo.
Police have raised the pressure with more forces, rolling out razor wire and threatening more temple leaders with arrest.
The temple’s adversaries believe charges of scandal and the scenes at the compound will at least discourage Thais from joining Dhammakaya. Longer term, other steps are being considered.
“Assets owned by the Dhammakaya Foundation should be transferred to the temple and the leadership of the temple needs to change,” said Paiboon, the former senator. “Someone outside the temple must be appointed to steer the temple back to the right path.”
Additional reporting by Panarat Thempgumpanat; Editing by Bill Tarrant