By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Hundreds of meditating supporters of an influential Buddhist abbot in Thailand blocked investigators on Thursday aiming to arrest him on corruption charges in his temple north of Bangkok.
The controversy over the abbot, Phra Dhammachayo, 72, in part reflects more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand, which has permeated all aspects of life, including Buddhism.
The abbot is accused of conspiring to launder money by accepting cash stolen from a credit union.
But many of his supporters suspect he has been targeted because of perceived links to political opponents of the military-dominated establishment.
Officials from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) turning up at the abbot's Wat Dhammakaya temple complex found rows of followers sitting silently in the rain.
"The temple is being partly cooperative, but when we went inside we were blocked by a group of devotees," DSI deputy chief Police Major Suriya Singhakamol told reporters.
The DSI is a department of the justice ministry that deals with investigations of high-ranking officials.
The failed bid to enter the wealthy and influential temple was broadcast live on national television.
Scores of riot police, who carried no weapons or batons, waited at a nearby government office but were not deployed.
Suriya said a police search warrant was only valid until 6 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Thursday.
He said he was "confident" the abbot remained inside the temple.
"This mission is not over," he said before leaving.
Citing ill health, the abbot failed to appear at a police station to answer graft charges in May. [nL3N18N2HF]
His followers reject the accusations against him saying the charges are politically motivated because of the temple's perceived links with populist former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
A former telecoms tycoon, Thaksin was overthrown in a 2006 coup and has lived in self-exile since 2008 but remains influential.
The ruling junta, which in 2014 overthrew a government led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has not commented on the attempted raid and appears reluctant to take sides on a religious issue.
Revered Buddhist monks are often seen as untouchable and many Thais would frown upon police entering a temple by force.
But others say the repeated failure to arrest the abbot is further proof of Thailand's culture of impunity - the ease with which the rich and powerful can get away with nearly anything.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)