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Feb 19, 8:42 AM EST

Police hunting for monk increase pressure on Thai temple


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PATHUM THANI, Thailand (AP) -- Police in Thailand who spent three days in an orderly but unsuccessful search of a vast Buddhist temple for a prominent monk accused of financial wrongdoing kept up the pressure Sunday, sending fresh forces to confront devotees and monks at the compound's gates.

Around 3,000 police had surrounded the Dhammakaya sect temple north of Bangkok from Thursday through Saturday, while smaller squads searched for its chief, Phra Dhammajayo, who is accused of accepting $40 million in embezzled money.

Both security forces and Dhammajayo's followers gathered in growing numbers at the temple on Sunday after the Department of Special Investigation - Thailand's FBI - ordered all people not residing there to leave. Numbers on both sides were difficult to estimate.

Sunday's standoff ended peacefully, with the police forces withdrawing shortly after dark.

Dhammajayo has been charged with money-laundering and receiving stolen property. His defenders say he did not know the money was tainted.

Some devotees believe his legal troubles are politically motivated because the temple and its followers are seen as supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup. Thailand had another coup in 2014 and currently has a military government.

The police are operating under an emergency order issued Thursday by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha allowing them to shortcut normal legal procedures with broad powers to search property and arrest people.

They have sought to block people from entering the temple, but many seemed to have gotten through on Sunday after senior monks issued statements suggesting the temple was under threat.

Police also issued summonses for more than a dozen senior monks, including Dhammajayo - who has not been seen in public for months - to present themselves at the local police station.

"Our hearts break because we love Buddhism. We can die, but Buddhism, never," said Dhammakaya devotee Manoj Hemprommaraj. "We will protect our temple, (even) if we die."

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