Bangkok: Thai security forces entered the country's biggest Buddhist temple on Thursday to search for an influential monk wanted for money laundering after the junta leader declared he was imposing control over the vast temple complex.
With political parties and many activists silenced since a coup in 2014, the scandal-hit Dhammakaya Temple is a rare institution in defying the junta, which has so far trodden warily in confronting a group that claims millions of followers.
"Authorities have already started a search operation seeking the individual under arrest warrants," Paisit Wongmuang, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, told reporters.
They went in hours after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha used a security measure that critics dub "the dictator's law" to give forces a free hand to arrest, search, demolish or do anything else they see fit to apprehend Phra Dhammachayo.
The former abbot, 72, faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, as well as taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. His aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.
The controversy in part reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, which have penetrated all aspects of life - including the religion followed by some 95 percent of Thais.
Although the temple has no overt political affiliation, the abbot is widely believed to have had links with populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006. Prayuth became leader after a government led by Thaksin's sister was toppled in 2014.
Thousands of black-clad police and personnel in combat uniforms deployed before dawn around the temple compound, which at 1,000 acres (400 hectares) is nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City. Facing off against them were monks in saffron robes and devotees, who sat on the ground in prayer.
Police have tried several times over the past year to question the abbot and get into the temple, without success. They said the operation could end on Thursday if the monks cooperated.
Phra Sanitwong Wuttiwangso, the temple's head of public relations, told Reuters monks were willing to cooperate.
"But I cannot force praying devotees to make way for them," he said.
Phra Sanitwong told Reuters on Wednesday the abbot had not been seen since May and had not gone to the police because he was gravely ill.
The Dhammakaya Temple differs from traditional temples not only in its size and its flying-saucer shaped golden stupa.
A brash approach to winning followers - it has its own television station - jars on conservatives. They say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money. It says it is as committed to Buddhist values as they are.
The new move against the temple comes days after the appointment of a new supreme patriarch to head Thailand's 300,000 monks.
Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, from the most austere of two Thai Buddhist fraternities, was chosen by the king after a change in the law allowed him to ignore the choice of a religious council, which had recommended a monk with links to Dhammakaya.