BANGKOK - Thai forces surrounded the country's biggest Buddhist temple on Thursday and the junta leader declared he was imposing control after it failed to hand over an influential monk wanted for money laundering.
With political parties and many activists silenced since a coup in 2014, the Dhammakaya Temple is a rare institution in defying the junta, which has so far trodden warily in confronting a religious group that claims millions of followers.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Article 44 of the constitution - a security measure dubbed "the dictator's law" by critics - was being used to impose control on the monastery because it had resisted law enforcement efforts.
Published in the Royal Gazette in the early hours on Thursday, the order allows forces to enter the area at will, control entry or exit, summon anyone inside, carry out arrests, searches or demolitions, or do anything else they see fit.
Phra Dhammachayo, 72, faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, as well as taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. The former abbot's aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.
Thousands of black-clad police and personnel in combat uniform deployed before dawn around the temple compound, which at 1,000 acres (400 hectares) is nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City. Motorists were told to avoid the area. "Blockades are now enforcing prohibiting anyone from entering or leaving," the temple said on its Twitter feed.
Security forces did not say whether there would be an attempt to storm the temple or if they were preparing to wait it out. The junta's order allows water and other services to be cut off.
Police have tried several times over the past year to question the abbot and get into the temple, without success. Each time, thousands of monks and devotees rushed to the temple to barricade the entrances.
The temple's head of public relations said on Wednesday the abbot had not been seen since May and had not gone to the police because he was gravely ill.
The controversy in part reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, which have penetrated all aspects of life - including the religion followed by some 95 per cent of Thais.
The Dhammakaya Temple differs from traditional temples not only in its size and its flying-saucer shaped golden stupa.
A brash approach to winning followers - it has its own television station - jars on conservatives. They say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money. It says it is as committed to Buddhist values as they are.
Although the temple has no overt political affiliation, the abbot is widely believed to have had links with populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006. A government led by his sister was toppled in 2014.
The new move against the temple comes days after the appointment of a new supreme patriarch to head Thailand's 300,000 monks.
Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, from the most austere of two Thai Buddhist fraternities, was chosen by the king after a change in the law allowed him to ignore the choice of a religious council, which had recommended a monk with links to Dhammakaya.