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Thai army personnel stand outside Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, Thailand February 16, 2017.REUTERS/Jorge Silva


By Aukkaraporn Niyomyat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police hunting a fugitive Buddhist monk discovered medical equipment in the temple rooms where they had expected to find him and will keep searching, an officer said on Friday.

The military government used an emergency law on Thursday to let police explore the scandal-hit Dhammakaya Temple after months of failing to get it to hand over Phra Dhammachayo in a politicised money-laundering case.

The Dhammakaya Temple has said its former abbot, 72, is too sick to face questioning and has not been seen for months.

The head of Thailand's Department of Special Investigation said police went to the place they had expected to find the monk, but discovered only a bed and a hyperbaric chamber - a high-pressure oxygen device that can be used to promote healing.

"They said he was sick and immobile. But we didn't find him yesterday, which means he can move," Paisit Wongmuang told reporters. "We'll keep searching for many days. If we don't find him today we'll search again tomorrow."

He said they would reassess their search only once they had combed every building in the temple compound, which at 1,000 acres (400 hectare) is nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City.

The temple has been a rare institution in defying the military government. Opposition from political parties and activists has largely been silenced since a coup in 2014.

Phra Dhammachayo faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, as well as taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. His aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.

The controversy partly reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, where 95 percent of people are Buddhists.

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 Thaksin's sister was toppled by the army in 2014.

The Dhammakaya Temple's brasher approach to winning followers jars on conservatives, who say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money. The temple says it is as committed to Buddhist values as anyone else.

The new move against the temple comes days after the king's appointment of a new supreme patriarch from the most austere of two Thai Buddhist fraternities. A religious council had earlier recommended a monk with links to Dhammakaya.

(Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Paul Tait)

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