Dhammakaya branch faces probe over illegal wood

Dhammakaya branch faces probe over illegal wood

1,000 sheets seized at Dhammakaya branch

Authorities have seized more than 1,000 sheets of processed wood from a branch of Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Lampang on the suspicion that they were acquired illegally.

A large amount of the wood, some identified as parts of protected golden teak and mai kraya loei, was found piled under a building which is being constructed to mark the 72nd birthday of Phra Thepyan Maha Muni, the clerical title of temple abbot Phra Dhammajayo, who is now wanted on money laundering-related charges.

The building, decorated with a picture of Phra Dhammajayo inside, is in the compound of Thoen Thoet Tham Youth Centre, a meditation practice venue located by the Lampang-Tak road in Thoen district.

By law, logging these trees is strictly prohibited unless a person is granted permission.

But when authorities, led by Thoen district chief Rangsan Kwanmueangdoem, asked a monk caretaker to show documents allowing the possession of the wood, he told them the centre has none.

Phra Thawat Prasantiyo claimed the piles of wood were "parts of trees that had broken off or fallen during powerful storms" which hit the province earlier in April, adding they "fell onto the centre's compound". The centre later decided to process them for use, he said.

Mr Rangsan said he was not convinced and that a more thorough check of the wood acquisition is needed.

Thoen Thoet Tham Youth Centre covers an area of more than 50 rai, with two buildings and two houses. At the front of the centre, stumps of trees were spotted as Mr Rangsan led forestry officials and soldiers to conduct a search at the venue.

Usually there are five monks staying at the centre, but four of them had left for Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani.

The temple has been under the spotlight after the Department of Special Investigation accused Phra Dhammajayo of money laundering and receiving stolen assets in connection with the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement scandal.

Branches of the temple in many provinces are also being inspected by the DSI after the agency received complaints over the venues' alleged encroachment on protected forests.

The Prayut Chan-o-cha administration has launched tough crackdowns on illegal logging and forest encroachment. Another high-profile case is the authorities' move against the alleged construction of resorts in protected forest areas on the so-called "Hi-So Hill" in Chiang Mai's Hang Dong district.

Following the discovery of alleged irregularities in land documents last weekend, the Royal Forest Department ordered officials to inspect resorts believed to be built on forest reserves countrywide within this month, said Chukiat Phongsuriwan, chief of the department's forest management in Chiang Mai.

Hi-So Hill, which has been eyed by property developers and wealthy people, is located along the Sa Meng-Chiang Mai road. An initial investigation found 30 resorts on this scenic hill, some of which are suspected of encroaching on the Mae Tha Chang and Mae Khanin forest reserves.

Forest officials are still checking the legality of the resorts after department chief Chonlatid Suraswadi on Sunday found that at least five of them were believed to have acquired the land title deeds illegally.

The officials' latest inspection was conducted at Phu Khao Ngam Hotel which is being built on a seven-rai plot of land, said Chiang Mai land official Chuchat Raksawong.

"We still do not know who owns this hotel," he said, adding available information only says the area is divided into two plots of land with documents showing the names of a Hang Dong resident and a woman from Bangkok as their owners.

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