BANGKOK, Thailand -- Fearing duplication of 1993's Waco, Texas
bloodshed, thousands of Thai troops and police retreated from their
three-week siege surrounding a Buddhist temple after failing to find
the former abbot who is wanted for alleged financial crimes.
   The sensational confrontation on Bangkok's northern edge ended on
March 10 and is widely seen as an embarrassing failure by the
coup-installed military government which deployed 4,000 security
forces in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest one elderly man.
   The crackdown against Phra Dhammachayo, who is Dhammakaya temple's
former abbot, is part of a broader shake-up of Thailand's Buddhist
clergy which is frequently tainted by scandals involving sex, drugs,
money and other violations.
   Dhammachayo, 72, founded the Dhammakaya temple in the 1970s,
promising fast enlightenment and a better reincarnation in exchange
for big donations.
   He reportedly claimed to perform miracles and to have met Apple
computer's late co-founder Steven Jobs in a heavenly encounter.
   Thailand's coup-installed military government was not directly
threatened by Dhammachayo, but his ability to defy arrest resulted in
loud criticism of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's claims to be
tough on corruption.
   Previous attempts by security forces to enter the sprawling,
multi-billion-dollar Dhammakaya Temple complex and arrest him had also
ended in failure.
   Dhammachayo is wanted for alleged involvement in the embezzlement
of millions of dollars from a local credit union -- bankrupting
thousands of customers -- plus money laundering, receipt of stolen
property, theft of forest land and more than 100 other cases dating
back to 1999.
   He has denied all charges of wrongdoing.
   The junta insists a go-slow, non-confrontational approach is
necessary to avoid violence between his influential breakaway
Dhammakaya sect and Buddhist-majority Thailand's mainstream believers.
   Dhammachayo claims millions of followers in Thailand plus several
temples in the U.S. and elsewhere.
   He has not been seen in public for several months, prompting
speculation that he may have fled the temple which encompasses
hundreds of acres.
   Up to 4,000 unarmed troops, police and officials from the
Department of Special Investigation (DSI) -- Thailand's equivalent to
the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations -- began surrounding the
temple before dawn on February 16.
   Police removed blockades which had been erected at several gates
during past months to thwart security forces.
   Police also temporarily stopped monks and devotees from leaving or
entering the complex.
   The missing abbot's devotees responded by digging a water-filled
moat in some areas, and erecting other barriers including groups of
people sitting down and meditating in the path of security forces.
   The temple includes residences for thousands of monks and
followers, plus schools, prayer grounds and a gigantic sleek circular
shrine popularly described as resembling a flying saucer.
   Muscular monks in orange robes shoved and shouted at DSI and police
at some gates, and then posted videos of the scuffles on social media.
   Some monks also stopped vehicles bringing the police's portable
toilets to the temple.
   Eventually an agreement was reached after police broke open a
gate's locks and entered.
   "The Dhammakaya temple has allowed police and DSI officials to
carry out a search inside the temple for the suspect," DSI head Col.
Paisit Wongmuang told reporters.
   "I don't know his whereabouts, I haven't seen him in about nine
months," temple spokesman Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso said.
   Security forces' first attempt to enter the temple failed in June.
   In December, 1,000 helmeted anti-riot police ended their second
attempt after a small DSI drone camera fell from the sky and severely
cut an officer.
   "Police will be very careful to raid the temple, in order to
prevent a clash with the temple's devotees, but the former abbot must
be arrested," Prime Minister Prayuth said in December.
   "We do not want to walk straight into their trap. It is the
government's job to control the situation," said Mr. Prayuth, who
seized power in a 2014 coup when he was the army's chief.
   "I'm asking Phra Dhammachayo to turn himself in to fight the
chares," Mr. Prayuth said at the time.
   "Authorities must bear in mind the last time security forces
invaded the compound of a religious sect," a Bangkok Post editorial
warned in December, referring to the FBI's handling of David Koresh's
Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
   "More than 80 people died at that 1993 incident at a Christian sect
in Texas.  [Thai] authorities have the duty to apprehend the fugitive
monk. They have an equal or superior duty to protect everyone from
harm," said the editorial, headlined: "End Temple Farce Now."
   Forcible arrest "could cause many deaths and injuries, and would
become a major scandal ruining the country's reputation," warned
temple spokesman Ong-art Thamnitha in December.
   "I can't tell disciples to obey me, because there are millions of
them" and some might not remain peaceful, Mr. Ong-art said.
   "Dhammakaya teachings represent a denomination of Theravada
Buddhism, akin to offshoots in other religions," said Thitinan
Pongsudhirak in an analysis published on March 17.
   "Phra Dhammachayo commodified his spiritual alternative into a
lucrative temple business, pledging instant gratification and
attainment of varying levels of heaven, based on how much money was
given to the temple for merit-making, even though heavenly doorways
are not to be found in the original Buddhist doctrine," said Mr.
Thitinan, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok's
Chulalongkorn University.
   Police and DSI officers meanwhile expanded their search for the
missing former abbot and searched various buildings in the
   Immigration officials hope Interpol might help nab Dhammachayo if
he had fled abroad.
   "I am starting to believe that Dhammachayo has mysterious powers,"
wrote former Armed Forces Security Center official Lt. Gen. Nanthadej
Meksawat on his Facebook site -- in a possibly satirical dig at the
military government's failure.
   "How else could he have escaped the siege?"