Buddhist monks face the police in front of the scandal-hit Wat Dhammakaya temple
Thai police left empty handed after a day-long search of a massive Buddhist temple for a monk wanted over a multi-million-dollar scam on Thursday, the latest twist in a saga highlighting a split over the nation's faith.
The sweep of the powerful and ultra-rich Wat Dhammakaya temple on Bangkok's outskirts comes after Thailand's junta chief invoked special powers to put its sprawling 1,000-acre compound under military control.
But it became the latest failed attempt to arrest Phra Dhammachayo, the septuagenarian monk who founded the breakaway Buddhist order in 1970, after police said they were unable to find him but would resume their search the following day.
The former abbot is believed to be holed up inside the compound, which is famous for its space-age architecture, though he has not been seen in public for months.
Police issued a warrant for his arrest last year on charges of money laundering and accepting embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht ($33 million) from the jailed owner of a cooperative bank.
Previous attempts to raid the temple have been thwarted after thousands of devotees showed up to defend the elderly abbot.
Desperate to avoid clashes with monks and other disciples, the Thai junta endorsed a sudden order early Thursday that gave authorities special powers to block ff the area.
In a day of high drama and stagecraft, some 4,000 unarmed police and soldiers descended on the site before dawn, locking down roads leading to the compound.
After hours of negotiation with monks, some officers managed to enter one gate and cut the lock off on another -- a breakthrough compared to previous stand-offs.
But after scouring "15-20 percent" of the sprawling compound investigators retreated empty handed.
"We still have to keep searching in our all targeted areas, only then can can we say whether he is in there or not," Woranun Srilam, deputy spokesman of Thailand's equivalent of the FBI, told reporters.
Speaking to media outside the temple, a Dhammakaya spokesman said he could not confirm whether the spiritual leader was inside.
"I don't know his whereabouts -- I haven't seen him in about nine months," said Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso.
Temple staff have previously said the ex-abbot is innocent but too ill to be questioned by police.
- 'Cultish' -
Historically, Thailand's secular authorities have been reluctant to intervene in the affairs of the clergy in the Buddhist-majority country.
But hostility towards the Dhammakaya sect has mounted in recent years, with critics from the mainstream Buddhist establishment accusing the temple of promoting a pay-your-way to nirvana philosophy.
Aided by a sophisticated PR operation, the sect has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past three decades, raising tens of millions of dollars and opening outposts around the world.
It is also famous for hosting visually-stunning mass gatherings of monks on Buddhist holy days -- events derided by critics as a display of the sect's "cultish" approach.
The controversy is fuelled in part by speculation that the temple has links to Thaksin Shinawatra -- the ex-premier who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and lies at the heart of the kingdom's rancorous political divide.
The administration of his sister Yingluck, who was also prime minister, was toppled by the military again in 2014.
The temple denies any political affiliations and says it has become a pawn in a battle that pits the Shinawatras and their rural supporters against Bangkok's army-allied elite.
Last week Thailand's new king chose an octoganerian abbot to become the country's top monk, ending a three year stalemate and passing over a Dhammakaya-linked cleric who was next-in-line for the job.