Thai police file new charges against fugitive monk

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thai police filed two new arrest warrants against an influential former abbot of Thailand's biggest Buddhist temple on Thursday (Feb 23) after a week-long standoff there between security forces and monks.

Phra Dhammachayo, the former abbot of Dhammakaya Temple, is accused by police of money laundering.

The new arrest warrants are for encroaching on national park land in Phang Nga Province, southern Thailand, police spokesman Kissana Phatanacharoen said. They bring to 13 the total number of arrest warrants.

Temple supporters say all the charges are politically motivated.

The situation escalated a week ago when the military government invoked a special emergency law to let authorities search the temple after months of failing to get it to hand over Phra Dhammachayo.

The standoff at the scandal-hit Dhammakaya Temple represents one of the biggest challenges to the authority of Thailand's junta since it took power in 2014.

The widespread belief that the temple has links to the populist government ousted by the army in 2014, and a brasher brand of Buddhism than the conservative traditions of king and army, make the temple a thorn in the side of the establishment.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told reporters on Thursday that the guilty should turn themselves in to calm the situation. "I do not want mob rule to get in the way of the authorities," he said. "I value the life of all people, it doesn't matter who, but I also have to uphold the law."

Soldiers at the temple rolled out barbed wire early on Thursday to stop more supporters from getting inside its grounds.

Police said they were trying to find a peaceful way to enter the temple and conduct searches but were continually hampered by monks and followers who formed human blockades.