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Thai police on Tuesday called off a raid to arrest a prominent Buddhist monk wanted for suspected money laundering after devotees barricaded entrances to his sprawling temple complex in a Bangkok suburb.
The Wat Phra Dhammakaya Temple commands a huge following and is supported by influential politicians and businesspeople, but critics say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money.
Thailand’s attorney general said in November it would charge the temple’s abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, and four others with conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods.
Dhammachayo’s aides have denied the accusations against him, which they say are politically motivated.
Police have tried over the past few months to question the abbot and get into the temple, but without success.
On Tuesday, Reuters reporters saw hundreds of monks and devotees inside the temple, which is near the capital’s Don Muang International Airport.
Some people were barricading entrances, while others wore face masks and chanted Buddhist prayers.
Police removed part of a metal fence outside the complex but by early afternoon they had withdrawn from the site.
“We have cleared the fence from the area because it was illegally constructed,” Khempak Photipak, the officer in charge of the police operation, told Reuters.
“We did not move into the temple today because there are too many people and we did not receive orders to do so,” he said.
He gave no further details nor did he say when police might try to get into the temple again.
Temple officials said there were about 10,000 people in the complex.
The controversy over the abbot in part reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, which has permeated all aspects of life, including Buddhism.
The abbot is widely perceived to have had links with populist former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup. Thaksin has lived in self-exile since 2008 but remains influential.
The military overthrew a government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014.