One side of the temple gate is blocked by cops in blue, the other by rows of bald men in orange – the frontline of a bizarre stand-off between the Thai state and Buddhist monks that is raising questions of impunity, religion and power.
The Dhammakaya temple’s compound in northern Bangkok has been under siege for two weeks as thousands of officers try to arrest the sect’s 72-year-old spiritual leader.
Phra Dhammachayo, who is accused of colluding in a$33-million embezzlement, is believed to be hiding somewhere on the temple’s sprawling 1 000 acre grounds, an area twice the size of Monaco.
The Thai junta, which has run the country since 2014, has invoked special powers to get him but so far failed spectacularly.
Police were initially led on a merry dance through secret tunnels, empty rooms and even to the fugitive abbot’s quarters – where they found a bed with pillows arranged under a sheet in a poor imitation of a sleeping person.
But defiant monks and temple followers have now blocked officers from entering the temple and resuming the search.
With the stand-off lurching into farce, the Thai junta that ordered the raid is fast ‘losing face’ and transfixing a public banned from criticising the generals who seized power in a 2014 coup.
“At first this area was controlled by police… but the temple devotees took it back,” Phra Pasura Dantamano, a senior monk, explained after his staff helped sneak reporters inside the compound.
Around him sat rows of monks and disciples chanting mantras in the direction of officers who have ordered them to leave but fear sparking a violent confrontation.
Temple staff – who deny knowledge of the former abbot’s whereabouts – say he is innocent and accuse the junta of launching a politicised witch-hunt.
Inside the compound, where phone service has been cut by authorities, defiant devotees fear authorities are trying dismantle their temple and seize its assets.
“We will stay until we win,” said 67-year-old Narin Mingkwan, one of thousands of mostly middle-aged women leading the unlikely holdout.
Founded in 1970 the temple has harnessed modern technology and aggressive PR methods to build a cult-like following – and a handsome bank account.
Critics accuse the abbot of distorting traditional Buddhist morality by encouraging materialism and promising spots in the afterlife in exchange for donations.
Beyond the temple’s gates, manicured lawns and tree-lined canals sweep around towering geometric shrines, including one that famously resembles a glittering UFO.
The Dhammakaya campus also boasts a slick ‘Donation Room’ that resembles a bank branch – complete with ATM machines.
Yet devotees deny an obsession with money, insisting the sect is popular because of its accessible meditation methods.
“We have tried to adapt ourselves to the changes of society,” said Phra Pasura Dantamano, a monk tasked with media relations who has been furiously Tweeting out the daily drama.
Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha insists arresting the abbot is essential to the rule of law in a country where connections and cash frequently shape the justice system.
Experts speculate the temple is however in the junta’s crosshairs for political reasons.
It is rumoured to have close links with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose super rich clan win Thai elections but are hated by the army and its elite backers.
Yet the junta’s quest for the abbot appears to be backfiring.
Arresting him by force risks an unholy collision with monks and devotees – scenes that would inflame Buddhists around the world.
But admitting defeat may invite other challenges to the military regime.
“It’s a breakdown of the system,” Sanitsuda Ekachai, an expert on Thai religion and politics, said of the stalemate.
“I really fear for a violent confrontation.”
The junta appears in no mood to retreat and Prayut is convinced the fugitive monk is still inside the temple.
“If he thinks he is innocent then he should come out and fight the case… don’t use faith as a shield,” the junta chief said on Thursday.