PATHUM THANI — Just north of the sprawling Wat Dhammakaya complex is an unfinished hospital called Boonraksa. Soldiers tried to search it weeks ago, but were pushed back by a crowd of monks and the faithful.
Now it’s being fortified, with moats dug and obstacles set up. A large group of worshipers has been gathering in the area, with some pitching tents, which the authorities interpret as indicating intent to stay.
Nearly three weeks into a siege about headquarters of the Dhammakaya movement – an operation during which two civilians have died – the authorities believe the surge of activity at the Boonraksa building could mean the sect’s fugitive leader is hiding there, though Dhammakaya reps disputed the speculation.
“There are many indications, such as the pitching of tents, laying of obstacles, and erecting tarp to prevent aerial surveillance,” said Woranan Srilam, a spokesman for the Department of Special Investigation, the agency tasked with capturing former abbot Dhammajayo. “We have probable cause making it necessary to search the area.”
He said latest intelligence reports confirm the 72-year-old monk is still somewhere in the complex “or somewhere very close by.”
A representative from Wat Dhammakaya admit defenses are being constructed at Boonraksa Building, but said they are the work of laymen and not the temple.
“The temple followers are worried about their temple. They don’t want officials to enter,” Phra Channarong told reporters Tuesday morning. “They are temple followers. They love the temple. That’s why they come out to defend it.”
Dhammajayo, who was stripped of his ecclesiastic title Sunday night, is being sought for money laundering and about 300 other charges. The charismatic leader has not been seen in public since he was first charged in May, when his followers said he was too ill to meet with police.
At Monday’s news conference, DSI officials showed reporters images taken by drones that they said captured work being done around the Boonraksa building, including four moats filled with water that now bar the only point of access from the main road. Maj. Woranan described the moats as an anti-vehicle defense strategy.
More worrying, DSI officials said, are dozens of barrels scattered through the area that they worry could be filled with fuel and ignited if officers enter the area.
The temple spokesman said the fortifications are there to prevent damage to the temple by the authorities.
“Locals saw soldiers, I mean, security officers, ram their vehicles into the temple walls two, three times, so they got suspicious,” Phra Channarong said. “It’s a temple that the locals built out of their faith. They want to defend the temple. They don’t have any intention to obstruct officers.”
Phra Channarong also said the barrels are empty, and were only used to secure tarp awnings put up to protect the tents from the elements.
Asked why the temple seemed to be reinforcing its defense of the building, the monk said the temple is protecting every part of its property, and not only any particular facility.
Another monk-spokesman for Wat Dhammakaya dismissed possibility Dhammajayo might be hiding in the Boonraksa building.
“The building is still under construction. The interior is still going. It was searched by DSI on 17th and found only dust,” Phra Dantamano Bhikkhu wrote in reply in English. “In fact, DSI should know better than anyone else that it’s not livable yet.”
But DSI spokesman Woranan maintained the area has never been searched.
“It was not included in our initial search operation,” Maj. Woranan said.
Asked whether authorities will mount an effort to enter Boonraksa and search the building, the spokesman was non-committal.
“The operations section is deliberating the matter. I don’t want to say anything binding. I don’t want to put pressure on them,” Woranan said.