February 17, 2017 / 10:27 AM / in 8 months

Thai police fail to find fugitive monk in temple search

Policemen and Buddhist monks search for a fugitive Buddhist monk inside Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, Thailand February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police failed to find a fugitive Buddhist monk wanted on money-laundering charges in a two-day search through the country’s biggest monastery, but will not stop the hunt, a spokesman said on Friday.

The military government used an emergency law on Thursday to let police explore the scandal-hit Dhammakaya Temple after months of failing to get it to hand over its former abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, in a politicised money-laundering case.

The Dhammakaya Temple has said the monk, 72, is too sick to face questioning and has not been seen for months.

“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,” Woranan Srilam of the Department for Special Investigation told reporters.

Some forces would remain deployed at the temple, he said.

At 1,000 acres (400 hectares), the temple in a Bangkok suburb is nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City.

Policemen and Buddhist monks search for a fugitive Buddhist monk inside Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, Thailand February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

The temple has been a rare institution in defying the military government. Opposition from political parties and activists has largely been silenced since a coup in 2014.

Phra Dhammachayo faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, as well as taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. His aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.

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The controversy partly reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, where 95 percent of people are Buddhists.

Although the temple has no overt political affiliation, the abbot is widely believed to have had links with populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006. A government led by Thaksin’s sister was toppled by the army in 2014.

The Dhammakaya Temple’s brasher approach to winning adherents jars on conservatives, who say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money. The temple says it is as committed to Buddhist values as anyone else.

The new move against the temple comes days after the king’s appointment of a new supreme patriarch from the most austere of two Thai Buddhist fraternities. A religious council had earlier recommended a monk with links to Dhammakaya.

Police said that when they went to the room where they had expected to find the monk inside the temple, they discovered only a bed and a hyperbaric chamber - a high-pressure oxygen device that can be used to promote healing.

Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Matthew Tostevin

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