Thai cops search scandal-hit temple for wanted monk

Police watch as Buddhist monks pray outside Wat Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, Thailand on Thursday. (AP)
Updated 16 February 2017
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Thai cops search scandal-hit temple for wanted monk

BANGKOK: Thai police left empty handed after a day-long search of a massive Buddhist temple for a monk wanted over a multi-million-dollar scam on Thursday, the latest twist in a saga highlighting a split over the nation’s faith.
The sweep of the powerful and ultra-rich Wat Dhammakaya temple on Bangkok’s outskirts comes after Thailand’s junta chief invoked special powers to put its sprawling 1,000-acre compound under military control.
But it became the latest failed attempt to arrest Phra Dhammachayo, the septuagenarian monk who founded the breakaway Buddhist order in 1970, after police said they were unable to find him but would resume their search the following day.
The former abbot is believed to be holed up inside the compound, which is famous for its space-age architecture, though he has not been seen in public for months.
Police issued a warrant for his arrest last year on charges of money laundering and accepting embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht ($33 million) from the jailed owner of a cooperative bank.
Previous attempts to raid the temple have been thwarted after thousands of devotees showed up to defend the elderly abbot.
Desperate to avoid clashes with monks and other disciples, the Thai junta endorsed a sudden order early Thursday that gave authorities special powers to block off the area.
In a day of high drama and stagecraft, some 4,000 unarmed police and soldiers descended on the site before dawn, locking down roads leading to the compound.
After hours of negotiation with monks, some officers managed to enter one gate and cut the lock off on another — a breakthrough compared to previous stand-offs.
But after scouring “15-20 percent” of the sprawling compound investigators retreated empty handed.
“We still have to keep searching in our all targeted areas, only then can can we say whether he is in there or not,” Woranun Srilam, deputy spokesman of Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI, told reporters.
Speaking to media outside the temple, a Dhammakaya spokesman said he could not confirm whether the spiritual leader was inside.
“I do not know his whereabouts — I have not seen him in about nine months,” said Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso.
Temple staff have previously said the ex-abbot is innocent but too ill to be questioned by police.
Historically, Thailand’s secular authorities have been reluctant to intervene in the affairs of the clergy in the Buddhist-majority country.
But hostility toward the Dhammakaya sect has mounted in recent years, with critics from the mainstream Buddhist establishment accusing the temple of promoting a pay-your-way to nirvana philosophy.
Aided by a sophisticated PR operation, the sect has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past three decades, raising tens of millions of dollars and opening outposts around the world.
It is also famous for hosting visually-stunning mass gatherings of monks on Buddhist holy days — events derided by critics as a display of the sect’s “cultish” approach.
The controversy is fueled in part by speculation that the temple has links to Thaksin Shinawatra — the ex-premier who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and lies at the heart of the Kingdom’s rancorous political divide.
The administration of his sister Yingluck, who was also prime minister, was toppled by the military again in 2014.


Scores dead in bomb attacks across Sri Lankan capital

Updated 1 min 30 sec ago
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Scores dead in bomb attacks across Sri Lankan capital

  • Police warned top officers of a Muslim radical group planning to hit “prominent churches” 10 days before the attack
  • Attacks happened as Christians attended Easter Sunday services

COLOMBO: At least 137 people, including nine foreigners, were killed in Sri Lanka on Sunday, when a string of blasts ripped through high-end hotels and churches as worshippers attended Easter services.

Sri Lanka’s police chief made a nationwide alert 10 days before Sunday’s bomb attacks in the country that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches,” according to the warning seen by AFP.

Police chief Pujuth Jayasundara sent an intelligence warning to top officers on April 11 setting out the threat.

“A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” said the alert.

The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that came to notice last year when it was linked to the vandalization of Buddhist statues.

A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least 42 people were killed in Colombo, where three hotels and a church were hit.

Another 10 people were confirmed dead in the town of Batticaloa, in the east of the country, where another church was targeted.
There were also reports of casualties in a blast at a church north of the capital and the toll was expected to rise.
The nature of the blasts was not immediately clear and there were no immediate claims of responsibility.
President Maithripala Sirisena in an address said he was shocked by the explosions and appealed for calm.
Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, writing on his verified Twitter account, said the attacks had killed “many innocent people” and appeared to be a “well-coordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem & anarchy.”
The first explosions were reported at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a church in Colombo and St. Sebastian’s Church in the town of Negombo just outside the capital.
Dozens of people injured in the St. Anthony’s blast flooded into the Colombo National Hospital by mid-morning, an official told AFP.
“A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there,” read a post in English on the Facebook page of the St. Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo.
Shortly after those blasts were reported, police confirmed three hotels in the capital had also been hit, along with a church in Batticaloa.
An official at one of the hotels, the Cinnamon Grand Hotel near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, told AFP that the blast had ripped through the hotel restaurant.
He said at least one person had been killed in the blast.
An official at the Batticaloa hospital told AFP more than 300 people had been admitted with injuries following the blast there.
“Emergency meeting called in a few minutes. Rescue operations underway,” Sri Lanka’s Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said in a tweet on his verified account.
He said he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St. Anthony’s Shrine and described “horrible scenes.”
“I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he tweeted, adding that there were “many casualties including foreigners.”
“Please stay calm and indoors,” he added.
Photos circulating on social media showed the roof of one church had been almost blown off in the blast.
The floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood.
Several people could be seen covered in blood, with some trying to help those with more serious injuries.
The images could not immediately be verified.

Only around six percent of mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka is Catholic, but the religion is seen as a unifying force because it includes people from both the Tamil and majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.