Thai police block Buddhist monks at the gate of Dhammakaya temple. Photo: Reuters

Thai police began sweeping a scandal-hit Buddhist temple on Thursday to search for a wanted monk who has evaded arrest for months in a saga highlighting a split over the nation’s faith.

The search of the powerful and ultra-rich Wat Dammakaya temple on Bangkok’s outskirts comes after Thailand’s junta chief invoked special powers to put its sprawling 400-hectare compound under military control.

Previous attempts to raid the temple were thwarted after thousands of devotees showed up to defend Phra Dhammachayo, the septuagenarian monk who founded the breakaway Buddhist order in 1970.

The former abbot is believed to be holed up inside the temple, which is famous for its space-age architecture, but has not been seen in public for months.

He is accused of money laundering and accepting embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht (US$33 million) from the jailed owner of a cooperative bank. Soldiers and police surrounded a scandal-hit Buddhist temple on Bangkok’s outskirts early Thursday in apparent preparation for a raid to arrest the sect’s spiritual leader after Thailand’s junta leader invoked special powers to put the site under military control.

Early Thursday hundreds of police and soldiers were bussed into the site, locking down roads leading to the vast temple, following a sudden order endorsed by junta leader and prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha.

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