Controversial former abbot Phra Dhammachayo remained elusive yesterday on the second day of a large-scale search for him inside the sprawling Dhammakaya Temple complex.
The failure came as government figures expressed uncertainty as to whether the 72-year-old monk was still in the temple.
During the search of the 830-acre compound (over 2,100 rai), officials went inside a sick bay used by the former abbot.
But instead of finding him they found an orange robe that covered several pillows arranged to look like a person sleeping.
The search team also uncovered secret tunnels running underneath the UFO-like building that dominates the temple complex, which may have been used by the former abbot as a hiding place, Agence France-Presse reported.
Authorities discovered a - spilt into two routes - dug under the dominant structure.
The U-shaped tunnel is about five metres high and three kilometres long.
Reporters joined authorities on a tour of the tunnel, accompanied by a number of Dhammakaya monks.
"It only has one entrance but it does not go outside of the temple," Department of Special Investigation (DSI) deputy spokesman Worranan Srilum told reporters.
Worranan said the DSI would continue its search for a third day today, with a focus on areas outside the temple. But he did not elaborate on that.
"There is no plan to carry out the operation inside the temple," he said.
"Although the wanted person was not found during the search, we will still continue our hunt." Anyone with information about the suspect's whereabouts may tip off the DSI through its 1202 hotline.
He said authorities had also sealed off the Daowadueng building, where Dhammachayo's hyperbaric chamber was found so experts can try to determine when the monk last used it.
Reporters observing yesterday's operation by DSI officials and police officers experienced less resistance from temple staff members and followers.
Military personnel gathered outside the temple compound to enforce an order issued by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha early on Thursday that gave authorities legal control over the monastery compound.
Justice Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana, who oversees the DSI, said yesterday that the agency needs to work out where Dhammachayo has gone after the former abbot was not found after two days of searching.
"DSI has to have an answer for me, the government and society as to what happened and where Phra Dhammachayo is," Suwaphan said.
He said that if the search team did not find the monk inside the temple that would mean Dhammachayo had escaped the legal action against him, but criminal offences the monk faces carry a 15-year statute of limitations.
Suwaphan said he was unsure if the monk was still inside the temple or even the country. "It's difficult to confirm that. The DSI has to determine if he has a passport," he said.
Prime Minister Prayut was unsure yesterday if Dhammachayo was still in the temple.
Army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart, in his capacity as secretary of the National Council for Peace and Order, said it would be clear within a few days whether Dhammachayo was still inside the temple.
He said the key thing was officials were now able to enter the temple to enforce the law. "If authorities know where he is, we will go after him," the Army chief added.
The court-issued search warrant allows authorities to conduct a search for 10 days. Prayut's order, issued in his capacity as the junta head, bans resistance to the search and outlines penalties against offenders.
Two previous search operations last year failed to get the former abbot of the scandal-hit temple, which faced hundreds of legal charges ranging from encroachment on forest reserves to illegal construction in public space.
Dhammachayo, now honorary abbot of the temple, is wanted for alleged money laundering and accepting stolen goods in connection with an embezzlement case involving a key follower of the monk.
His close disciple, former Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative chairman Supachai Srisupa-aksorn, is serving a 16-year jail term for embezzling billions of baht from members of the cooperative.
Before his arrest, Supachai had donated over Bt900 million (S$36.4 million) to the monk.
Dr Mano Laohawanit, a former close aide to Dhammachayo, said yesterday he believed the former abbot was still hiding in the vast temple compound, quoting inside "sources".
Earlier, he said Dhammachayo had left the temple to live in a "safe house" belonging to a key follower. But Mano said his sources live in the temple and update him on the monk's movements.
Dhammakaya spokesman Phra Sanitwong Wutthiwangso denied yesterday that the temple faked Dhammachayo's presence in the Daowadueng building.
Phra Sanitwong, director of the temple's information division, said there was no attempt to fool officials.