Thailand's junta leader today urged a powerful monk accused of receiving embezzled funds to surrender to police and avoid a possible raid on the space-age Bangkok headquarters of his wealthy Buddhist sect.
A stand-off between investigators and the powerful Wat Dhammakaya temple in northern Bangkok has rumbled on for months.
The country's equivalent of the FBI has charged Phra Dhammachayo, the 72-year-old former abbot of the Dhammakaya temple, over allegations he accepted embezzled funds worth 1.2 billion baht (USD 33 million) from the owner of a cooperative bank who was jailed.
The latest deadline for his surrender -- extended over the last year -- is set to pass tonight.
Police are reluctant to raid the religious site where thousands of faithful are believed to be prepared to defend the monk, raising the unholy prospect of clashes in a devout Buddhist nation.
The temple, famous for its main shrine that resembles a huge UFO and its choreographed mass meditation events, has denied the monk conspired to launder the money, calling the charges "groundless and unconscionable".
They also say the former abbot is too sick for police questioning but have in recent days not confirmed if the monk is in the temple.
Quizzed on the issue, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who is also Thailand's junta chief, issued a warning.
"I will not violate (anyone's rights)... Monks are monks but state law is also a law," he told reporters.
"So you must put pressure on the violator of the law and not on officials," he said, addressing the prospect of an ugly confrontation between temple followers and police.
Instead of risking clashes, Prayut urged the monk to "come out and fight the case".
The Dhammakaya controversy has highlighted bitter political ruptures at the heart of Thailand's national faith -- and law enforcement's seeming inability to confront monks accused of crimes.
The Dhammakaya has become tangled up in the country's treacherous political scene.
Detractors accuse Phra Dhammachayo of promoting a buy your way to nirvana philosophy and being close to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
The administration of his sister Yingluck, who was also prime minister, was also toppled by the military in 2014 after months of protests.
Ultra-nationalist monks, some of whom are key critics of Dhammakaya and the Shinawatras, played a major role in those protests.