Monks and police faced off on Monday at Wat Phra Dhammakaya monastery where security forces are trying to arrest an influential former abbot on money-laundering charges.
Police said they would try to avoid violence while threatening arrest for followers of the sprawling temple who have defied orders to leave and instead flocked there, hampering the search for 72-year-old Phra Dhammachayo.
With tension rising four days after the military government ordered emergency powers to be used in the search, monks and police pushed and shoved at one of the temple gates.
Footage of monks clashing with authorities were shared on Twitter.
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A Reuters photographer said there were no serious injuries.
The widespread belief that the temple has links to the populist government ousted by the army in 2014, and that it exemplifies a brasher brand of Buddhism than the conservative traditions of the monarchy and the military, make the temple a thorn in the side of the establishment.
The temple claims millions of followers and, in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, assaults on saffron-robed monks are taboo.
“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 (DSI).
“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.
Most police taking part in the search at Thailand’s largest temple are not armed. The temple covers 1,000 acres and is located in Pathum Thani province.
The government used what critics call “the dictator’s law” on Thursday to let police search the Dhammakaya Temple after months of failing to get the monks to hand over Phra Dhammachayo.
He 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.
Police declined to comment on a report in the Bangkok Post that Phra Dhammachayo escaped the monastery on the first day of the search.
Slogans scrawled by disciples on makeshift cardboard placards in Thai and English also showed the politicization of the standoff.
“Thai dictator try to invade the holiest stage of Buddhism,” read one.