Pathum Thani (Thailand) May 29 An embezzlement charge against a powerful Buddhist abbot has unleashed his super-rich temple's PR machine, with Twitter-using Thai monks orchestrating his defence over a scandal that has opened a bitter rupture at the heart of the nation's faith.
"There has never been a temple of this size in Thai history," orange-robed Phra Pasura Dantamano says as he gestures towards Dhammakaya temple's pristine, 1,000-acre compound north of Bangkok where peacocks roam the lawns and white-clad devotees meditate.
But the affable monk's comments apply to more than the temple's enormous, futuristic architecture - including a building that famously resembles a gigantic UFO. Dhammakaya is also regarded as the wealthiest in Buddhist-majority Thailand, thanks in part to tech-savvy devotees who have cultivated a fervent following, raised tens of millions of dollars and set up outposts in dozens of countries across the globe.
Phra Pasura, the monk in charge of the temple's 60-member International Affairs Department, is part of the fine-tuned public relations operation that is now firing on all cylinders as it seeks to quash the latest scandal to dog the temple since its founding in 1970. Dhammakaya's modern, and some say "cultish", approach to Buddhism riles traditionalists, with critics accusing the clergy of peddling a pay-your-way to nirvana scheme.
The temple's abbot Phra Dhammachayo, venerated as a saint among his followers, is wanted by police for allegedly accepting embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht (USD 33 million) from the owner of a cooperative bank who was jailed in March. The temple has denied its abbot conspired to launder the money, calling the charges "groundless and unconscionable".
The temple claims the 72-year-old is too sick to meet with officers, and police do not want to confront him on the temple grounds, fearing clashes with devotees. Monks and temple staff have been vigorously live-tweeting the drama, churning out detailed press releases and fact sheets, and making use of their slick 24-hour TV channel to bat back the allegations against their revered abbot.
The temple boasts a TV studio and editing bays inside its two-story media department, with other offices adorned with signs such as "Corporate Image Division," and "Printed Media Section." Phra Pasura, a former flight attendant with a degree in international relations, says the overheads are minimal.
"Much of the animation and editing is done by monks," he says of the TV channel, which broadcasts across four continents and airs everything from meditation teachings to cartoons and daily news. "And a monk's salary is only two meals a day", he adds with a smile.