Thai police have uncovered secret tunnels running underneath a space-age temple of the controversial Dhammakaya Buddhist sect, as their manhunt for the elusive monk who founded the temple and is accused of massive embezzlement entered a second day.
Thousands of officers are involved in the search for 72-year-old Phra Dhammachayo, who is believed to be holed up in the vast Wat Dhammakaya grounds on the outskirts of Bangkok.
The former abbot, who founded the breakaway order in 1970 and has marshalled its prodigious rise, is accused of money laundering and accepting embezzled funds worth US$33 million from the jailed owner of a cooperative bank.
However, in an increasingly bizarre cat-and-mouse game, police were frustrated for a second day running as they were led by orange-robed monks through endless rooms and hallways in the 405-hectare site.
On Thursday, police found a 1.5km tunnel — spilt into two routes — dug under the UFO-like temple that dominates the site, which may have been used by the former abbot as a place to hide.
“It only has one entrance, but it does not go outside of the temple,” police Colonel Worranan Srilum, deputy spokesman for the Department of Special Investigation — Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI — told reporters.
They also searched a sick bay used by the former abbot, but instead of finding their quarry, pulled back an orange robe covering several pillows arranged to look like a sleeping person.
“The Dhammakaya temple area is sprawling, so it will have to take time to search... We can’t find him yet, but our intelligence insists that he is still inside [the] temple,” the colonel said.
The sweep of the powerful and ultra-rich Wat Dhammakaya comes after Thailand’s prime minister invoked special powers to put its sprawling compound under military control.
Temple officials say the ex-abbot is innocent and deny knowledge of his whereabouts.
The Dhammakaya sect has long been in the firing line. Critics accuse the temple of promoting a pay-your-way to nirvana philosophy, burnished with “cultish” mass shows of devotion and a sophisticated public relations machine.