January 26, 2017 / 9:01 AM / a year ago

Thai police pursue Buddhist monk with new arrest warrant

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A new warrant has been issued for the arrest of an influential Thai Buddhist monk and Thailand’s police chief said on Thursday they would do their best to bring him to justice despite previous failures.

Police in the predominantly Buddhist country have tried several times to arrest Phra Dhammachayo, former abbot of the futuristic-looking Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the country’s biggest and richest monastery.

A fourth arrest warrant was issued against Dhammachayo on Wednesday - for encroaching on land in southern Thailand. He already faced accusations of money laundering and of taking over land unlawfully elsewhere to build meditation centers.

“We cannot say we will arrest him within this year, but we will try our best to bring him to justice,” Chakthip Chaijinda, chief of the Royal Thai Police, told Reuters.

The temple, just outside Bangkok, says it has millions of followers, including some senior politicians and business people. But critics say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money.

The latest warrant was approved by a court in the southern province of Phang Nga. A police spokesman said the monk was charged with “burning down forest and taking possession of the land for himself without permission”.

Phra Sanitwong Wuttiwangso, the temple’s public relations chief, told Reuters the temple was not worried about the new warrant or the others. He declined to confirm whether Phra Dhammachayo was still in the temple.

“He is in our hearts,” he said.

The temple had previously said the former abbot was too sick to face questioning and refused to hand him over, defying a junta that has shut down most opposition since taking power in a 2014 coup.

In 2015, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation summoned Phra Dhammachayo for questioning after his temple was accused of receiving more than 1 billion baht ($28 million) of embezzled funds.

The controversy over the abbot in part reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, which has permeated all aspects of life, including Buddhism.

The abbot is widely perceived to have had links with populist former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup. The military overthrew a government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in the most recent coup.

Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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