Thai police aborted an attempt to arrest a controversial monk yesterday after thousands of devotees massed inside his mega temple.
Police held back, fearing the risk of a confrontation.
But the hundreds of policemen - some in riot gear - removed a metal fence on the perimeter of the Dhammakaya temple outside Bangkok before withdrawing, their latest salvo in a battle of wills that has been taking place since June over its honorary abbot Phra Dhammachayo.
The 72-year-old monk is wanted for allegedly laundering money and receiving stolen property. He is also facing additional charges over meditation centres which were allegedly built on public land.
Temple devotees say these charges have been trumped up to sully the name of the temple, which has several foreign chapters - in the United States, Europe as well as Singapore - and counts rich and influential people in Thailand among its followers.
The temple would cooperate with the authorities if they produced a search warrant, spokesman Phra Pasura Dantamano told The Straits Times. "But they would have to convince the devotees themselves," he said.
While the temple has been accused of using its devotees as human shields, Phra Pasura said the 10,000 devotees inside the 320ha compound yesterday were merely gathering for chanting. But more had streamed in after hearing about the police presence, he said.
Deputy national police chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul told reporters: "The investigation has to be done. We are doing it 100 per cent according to the law, but we have to take care of public security too."
Meanwhile, a police officer in charge of the operation, Mr Khempak Photipak, told Reuters news agency: "We did not move into the temple today because there are too many people and we did not receive orders to do so."
Police had similarly tried to enter the temple in June after Phra Dhammachayo, citing ill health, repeatedly failed to answer summonses. But temple devotees had blocked their path, and they had to withdraw.
Early this month, the Buddhist authorities removed Phra Dhammachayo from his post as abbot, naming him instead the honorary abbot of the mega temple.
While the temple authorities have denied that he has fled the country, many officials say they have not seen him for months. Phra Pasura, for example, said he last saw Phra Dhammachayo in April.
Dhammakaya, with a distinctive spaceship-like headquarters near Don Muang airport, has come under significant legal pressure recently. Its satellite TV channel, DMC, was ordered off the air this month after the authorities complained that it had been used to mobilise devotees as shields for the fugitive monk.
The spokesman for its lay disciples, Ong-art Thamnitha, was also slapped with an arrest warrant for allegedly inciting unrest. Earlier this month, he had warned that an attempt to arrest Phra Dhammachayo could face resistance and result in casualties.
Critics have accused the temple of deviant Buddhist teachings and linked it to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.