BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand's junta leader announced he was imposing control on the country's biggest Buddhist temple on Thursday (Feb 16) after it failed to hand over an influential monk who has resisted questioning over money laundering.
With political parties and many activists silenced since a coup in 2014, the Dhammakaya Temple is a rare institution in defying the junta, which has so far trod warily in confronting a religious group that claims millions of followers.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Article 44 of the constitution - a security measure dubbed "the dictator's law" by critics - was being used to impose control on the monastery because it had resisted law enforcement efforts.
"This calls for some measures to be put in place in order to control the area temporarily for effective law enforcement and peace in the country," said a document published in the Royal Gazette in the early hours.
Phra Dhammachayo, 72, faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods as well as of taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. The former abbot's aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.
Police have tried several times over the past year to question the abbot and get into the temple, but without success. Every time, thousands of monks and devotees rushed to the temple to barricade the entrances.
It was not immediately clear whether the Prime Minister's announcement would mean another attempt to enter the temple.
The controversy over the abbot in part reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, which have penetrated all aspects of life - including the religion followed by some 95 per cent of Thais.
The temple's head of public relations, Phra Sanitwong, said on Wednesday that the abbot had not been seen since May and had not gone to the police because he was gravely ill.