Authorities have failed to arrest the ex-abbot of Thailand’s most powerful Buddhist sect. However, they can claim a minor victory. George Styllis and Patthiya Tongfueng report from Pathum Thani province.
An hour's drive from Bangkok, glittering under the burning midday sun, stands Thailand's largest and wealthiest temple, the scandal-ridden Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a 400-hectare complex resembling more the headquarters of a secret intelligence agency than a traditional Buddhist temple.
For almost a month, police and the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) had been engaged in a stand-off and scuffles with its monks and supporters as they attempted to smoke out the temple's former abbot who is wanted on a slew of charges.
But as of Friday authorities called off their search, admitting that the ex-abbot, Phra Dhammajayo who is wanted for money laundering, embezzlement and forest encroachment, was nowhere to be seen.
DSI director general Paisit Wongmuang told the reporters that the hunt for Dhammajayo would continue but for now supporters and monks who were banned from entering the temple during the siege will be allowed back in as normal.
Blow to the government
The government's withdrawal comes as an anti-climax to a saga that had been building since last year, when thousands of followers blocked police from raiding the temple.
Authorities had cut all mobile phone signals in and around the temple and limited food and medical supplies, moves followers decried as human rights violations.
One man committed suicide in protest of the government's use of an executive order to raid the temple, and last Thursday a shot was fired from the temple grounds, hitting a patrolling army vehicle and leading to brief clashes between police and about 200 followers.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer on international affairs at Naresuan University, said the government realized it was pointless to continue with the raid given that the former abbot - now a monk after the new King, Vajiralongkorn, stripped him of his monastic rank - had most likely fled the temple already.
"In addition, the raid is becoming a negative shadow across the junta so it would prefer to abandon the search," he told DW.
For the military government, arresting the abbot is more than just an exercise in upholding law and order.
Since Dhammakaya was founded in 1970 it has grown into an international organization with millions of followers worldwide, many of whom donate vast sums of money.
The temple has TV and radio stations and publishes a monthly glossy magazine in which it details its achievements and lists its monkhood and famous meditation programs.
It operates with corporate-like efficiency and organization, running Buddhist societies in many Thai universities through which it recruits members.
Credited with this vision is the fresh faced 72-year-old Dhammajayo, who has carefully contrived a cult of personality.
He claims to have met the Lord Buddha himself and be blessed with the ability to reverse people's bad karma, anecdotes that have drawn sharp criticism from religious scholars.
"[His] words are taken as commandments," Mano Laohavanich, a Buddhist scholar and former Dhammakaya member of nearly 20 years until he defected, wrote in an academic essay.
During the Cold War, the military was suspicious of the mass appeal the temple had among students and accused it of having communist links.
Now, the fresh conflict is over the temple's alleged links to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose legacy the current military government has gone to great lengths to erase, experts say.
Steven B Young, a US professor who met the leaders of Dhammakaya in 2011 on behalf of the dean of Harvard's divinity school to discuss the possibility of fostering a relationship with the college, said the meeting made him "uncomfortable."
Arresting the ex-abbot would be a victory for authorities but could exacerbate Thailand's political crisis
The temple's leaders told Young they wanted to drive the dark power out of Thailand, as embodied by the army and conservative elite, an ideology similar to that of the pro-Thaksin political group, the "red shirts."
Citing a source well-connected to the temple, Young said the Dhammakaya played a crucial role in the bloody mass protests of 2010. It helped transport thousands of red shirts from the rural northeast to Bangkok where they tried to remove a Democrat-led government.
"[It] made sense to me because no one else can provide these sort of logistics."
A win nevertheless
For the government, arresting Dhammajayo during the raid would have been a victory in its struggle for legitimacy, despite running the risk of deepening the political divide, said Chambers.
"The disruption of temple operations increases legitimacy for the junta among Thaksin opponents who have begun to tire of junta rule."
Khemthong said a win has come in the form of the government's insistence that from now on Dhammakaya will be controlled by the Sangha Council, Thailand's Buddhism governing body, and will not be an independent school as when Dhammajayo led it.
But whether the government will be able to stunt the tentacles of an organization as big and far reaching as Dhammakaya, even without its idolized visionary, he said, "will remain to be seen."