By Aukkarapon Niyomyat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai security forces filed past chanting monks on Thursday to search the country's biggest Buddhist temple for an influential former abbot accused of money laundering, but failed to find him.
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 until now trod warily in confronting a group that claims millions of followers.
Police 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.
After Thursday's failure to find the monk, police said they would continue on Friday and the blockade would continue.
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 centers. His aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.
"He has only done good deeds," said one 50-year-old devotee who hurried to the temple on hearing of the raid, adding that temple officials had told her not to reveal her name to media.
"I was one of the people who donated to have this temple built so I'm here to protect it," she said.
The controversy over the abbot partly reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, which has 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, overthrown in 2006.
Prayuth became leader after toppling a government led by Thaksin's sister in 2014.
About 3,000 black-clad police deployed around the temple, with hundreds entering the compound, which, at 1,000 acres (400 hectares), is nearly 10 times the size of Vatican City.
Police encountered monks in saffron robes, chanting and frequently blocking their way. Several attempts to question the abbot have failed over the past year and this was the first time police had managed to search the temple.
A police spokesman, Woranan Silam, said the search would continue on Friday, after having covered about 15 percent to 20 percent of the grounds on Thursday.
The monks were willing to cooperate, the temple's head of public relations told Reuters.
"But I cannot force praying devotees to make way for them," Phra Sanitwong Wuttiwangso said.
He 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.
(Aditional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Clarence Fernandez)