Thai police launched a raid Thursday on a wealthy Buddhist temple in an attempt to arrest its honorary abbot accused of embezzlement.
Local media reported that police forces entered the sprawling Dhammakaya Temple after military and police officers surrounded the compound earlier in the day in order to prevent followers from blocking the latest operation.
In June and December last year, around 1,000 police officers encircled the 30-hectare temple -- dotted with huge stupas and prayer halls -- to arrest Phra Dhammachayo, who is accused of having received tens of millions of dollars from a financial fund scheme.
Both police operations were aborted, with officers apparently backing down from forcing entry into the temple in front of hundreds of followers sitting across the gate and chanting Buddhists mantras.
As police entered the compound north of Bangkok on Thursday, Buddhist monks were sitting and chanting inside the temple while followers stood outside the gates.
The temple's 72-year-old abbot is accused of having received $34 million in 2013 from the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative, which later collapsed resulting in financial losses for thousands of fund members.
Besides the embezzlement accusations, numerous other charges have been filed against the temple -- including over alleged encroachment on public land and not abiding by building laws.
Several arrest warrants were issued last year against Phra Dhammachayo, who cited health problems in refusing to answer summons.
On Wednesday, junta leader-cum-prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha issued an order declaring the temple area under the control of authorities to pave the way for Thursday's police raid.
The Dhammakaya temple, founded in 1970, has hundreds of thousands of followers countrywide and is especially popular among the urban middle-class. It uses modern marketing techniques to attract followers and propagates a materialistic and unorthodox version of Buddhist teachings.
It has become by far the country's most financially powerful temple, and is very influential with the Supreme Sangha Council, the committee of senior monks that lead Thai Buddhism.
Opponents, however, accuse it of distorting Buddhist principles, of propagating a materialistic version of the Buddha's teachings and equating money donated to the institution to merit acquired in the afterlife.
Over the last two decades, Dhammachayo has been implicated in numerous financial and land-related scandals, but has never attended court. -