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Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK


World: Asia-Pacific

Thai monk defies arrest

Police have sealed off the Dhammakaya temple

At least 20,000 followers of a controversial Thai monk have gathered at his temple on the outskirts of Bangkok to try and prevent his arrest on charges of fraud and embezzlement.

A warrant for the arrest of Phra Dhammachayo, who is the abbot of the Wat Dhammakaya, was issued on Monday.

Around 100 police are outside the temple complex and devotees have blocked off roads with buses and trucks.

They have warned that police action could provoke violence.

An anti-government activist and supporter of Wat Dhammakaya threatened to set himself alight before burning a Toyota pick-up truck outside Government House.

The Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has appealed for calm and for the abbot to give himself up, but a tense stand-off continues.

"I have asked the education minister, Somsak Prissananunthakul, to invite Phra Dhammachayo to surrender so that authorities can prosecute him," Chuan told reporters at government house. The education ministry has overall control of religious affairs.

A police spokesman set a deadline of 2200 local time (1500 GMT) for the abbot to surrender or face unspecified action.

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BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Jane Little: A tense stand-off
Phra Dhammachayo is a charismatic middle-aged man who is said to be one of Thailand's richest landlords, stands accused of embezzling land and money from his supporters

According to official reports, his temple has accumulated 50bn baht ($1.5bn) from devotees, with branches in Japan and the United States. Wat Dhammakaya has been under investigation for almost a year.

Thailand's religious authorities meanwhile accuse the monk of distorting the teachings of the Buddha. Talk of miracles and visions at the temple have equally enraged mainstream Buddhists, who have been angered at the inaction of authorities in dealing with the controversy.

The temple is under fire because its teachings are said to contradict Lord Buddha's revered instructions, notably regarding money and the amassing of material wealth.

While traditional Buddhism advocates sacrifice and self-control, opponents of the temple say that Wat Dhammakaya offers religious merit according to the size of donations: the more one donates, the closer one gets to Nirvana.

Latest scandal

This is the latest and most high profile in a series of scandals surrounding Thai monks.

Stories of illicit sex and gambling have badly damaged the reputation of the Buddhist priesthood which officially commands the allegiance of more than 90% of Thailand's 61m people.

This siege is likely to be an embarrassment for the government and Thai Buddhism's ruling council which has come under increasing pressure for reform.

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