Thousands of followers of Thailand's largest Buddhist temple have defied police orders to evacuate the 1,000 acre facility, hindering the search for the monastery's former head monk who is wanted for allegedly accepting $40m of embezzled money and money-laundering.
Followers of the Dhammakaya Temple, north of the capital Bangkok, held posters on Sunday calling for police to retaliate and appealed for international attention and assistance.
"We have cooperated with the government every step of the way but this is one step too far," Phra Pasura Dantamano, a temple spokesman and senior monk, told Reuters News Agency.
"We're asking authorities to suspend the emergency law and lift their siege. Our supplies are low and we have been without power or water for three days."
Police said on Sunday that non-residents of the temple must evacuate the premises to accelerate the search as temple activities were standing in the way of police forces, while resident monks were ordered to convene at an exit point.
"We are conducting these steps so that we can conduct the search process as quickly as possible, so that we can return the temple grounds to the worshippers," Woranan Srilam of the department for special Investigation told Reuters.
The government on Thursday had issued a special emergency law to allow police to investigate the Dhammakaya Temple, following months of failing attempts to capture Luang Phra Dhammachayo, 72
He faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, and is accused of accepting $40m in embezzled money.
He is also charged for building meditation centres on unauthorised land, but his supporters claim the charges are politically motivated.
|Protesters accused authorities of interfering in religious matters [Reuters]
A police force consisting of about 3,000 policemen had raided the temple three days in a row since Thursday, but to no avail.
"We searched the entire temple, every building, every room, and didn't find the individual under arrest warrants. But we will continue to search around the temple," Woranam said.
Some forces would remain deployed at the temple, he said.
"This is an abuse of power by the junta who should not interfere on religious matters," Phra Pasura Dantamano, the temple spokesman, told Reuters.
"We have always been willing to negotiate and accommodate the authorities but this is too much."
The Dhammakaya temple previously said that Phra Dhammachayo is too ill to be questioned by authorities, and claim he has not been seen in months.
Since first being summoned by police early last year, he has repeatedly alleged to being ill in response to his failure to turn himself in.
Although the temple has no explicit political affiliation, Phra Dhammachayo is widely believed to have had links with Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was overthrown in 2006.
The Dhammakaya Temple's approach to winning supporters upsets conservatives, who say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money.
The temple authorities insist they are committed to Buddhist values.
The Dhammakaya Temple has been a rare institution in challenging the government.
Opposition from political parties and activists has largely been silenced in Thailand since the 2014 military takeover.
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Source: News agencies