By Andrew R.C. Marshall
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A stand-off in Thailand between investigators and a powerful Buddhist sect intensified on Thursday after its influential abbot failed to appear at a police station to answer graft charges because followers said he had fainted.
Temples and monasteries in mainly Buddhist Thailand have been rocked by sex and money scandals, prompting widespread calls for reform. The country's political divisions have also created fissures within the religion.
Phra Dhammachayo, abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, missed a Thursday deadline from the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) to turn himself in to face charges of money-laundering and receiving illegal donations.
"If he was to come now, it would risk his life," Ongart Thammanita, a spokesman for Dhammakaya followers, told reporters. "Doctors will need to treat him first."
Earlier, hundreds of orange-robed monks and other Dhammakaya followers walked from the temple complex north of Bangkok to gather outside a nearby police station where the abbot was due to report.
Citing ill health, Phra Dhammachayo has failed to show up for questioning several times, leading authorities to issue an arrest warrant last week.
The wealthy Dhammakaya sect, which claims millions of adherents worldwide, has been dogged by allegations of corruption, which it has steadfastly denied.
The temple said in a statement on Sunday that Phra Dhammachayo had not left the complex for eight years because of ill health and the DSI could read the charges to the abbot on his sick bed on Wednesday.
The DSI offered to release the abbot on bail, if he reported to the station on Thursday, where an ambulance and doctors waited to take him to a hospital.
The DSI told reporters it had yet to decide its next step but would need a search warrant to enter Dhammakaya's complex, which is dominated by a giant stupa shaped like a UFO.
The temple has said it would not obstruct security officers if they came to arrest the abbot but could not prevent his followers from doing so.
"Any intervention by a third party would result in a less than desirable outcome," it said in the statement.
The ruling junta will want to avoid a repeat of a confrontation in February, when soldiers scuffled with monks protesting against what they called state interference in religious affairs.
The leading candidate for the role of the supreme patriarch, the spiritual head of Thailand's 300,000 monks, has ties to the Dhammakaya sect.
The selection process has become a proxy for the colour-coded politics that the junta has quashed since seizing power in 2014.
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Andrew RC Marshall and Simon Webb; Editing by Robert Birsel)