As police search for Thailand's influential former abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, enters its fifth day, his followers reportedly clashed with security forces on Monday (20 February) stopping them from continuing their search inside the scandal-hit Dhammakaya temple premises.
The failure in arresting the monk, who is wanted on charges of money laundering, and the subsequent standoff at the temple are said to represent the biggest challenges that the military government has faced in recent times since it came to power following a coup in 2014.
While the police said they would avoid violence during the raid, they threatened to arrest followers of Dhammachayo who defied orders to leave the temple. According to Reuters, several monks flocked the temple, thereby obstructing the search for the 72-year-old monk.
However, no serious injuries were reported from the brawl.
"We are going to do all we can to avoid physical and violent confrontations. The searches will continue and we will ask for cooperation from the temple," said Suriya Singhakamol, deputy director general of the Department of Special Investigations.
"Worshippers coming into the temple from the surrounding areas should turn back. We are asking for people to not come in as they would be breaking the law and facing arrest," he said.
According to the temple, it is a taboo to attack the saffron-robed monks who are ardent followers of the former abbot.
Dhammachayo's disciples carried placards with slogans in Thai and English, which read: "Thai dictator try to invade the holiest stage of Buddhism." Reuters reported that police pushed and shoved the monks at one of the temple gates.
Although the temple has no obvious political affiliation, it is believed that it has links to the populist government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister. Both their governments were overthrown in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
The Thai junta on 16 February ordered that an emergency law to be used to give forces a free hand to "arrest, search, demolish or do anything" that would be deemed appropriate to let police raid the Dhammakaya temple after months of failing to get it to hand over Dhammachayo.
Critics of the security measure, however, dubbed it as "the dictator's law".
The monk, who has not been seen in public for months, faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods. He is also accused of taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. However, his followers and close aides have dismissed the allegations saying they were politically motivated.