By Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police ended their search of Thailand's biggest temple on Friday after laying siege to it for more than three weeks without finding the former abbot, who is wanted for suspected money-laundering.
The standoff at the Dhammakaya temple between thousands of police and saffron-robed monks has posed one of the greatest challenges to the military government since it took power in 2014 and largely neutralized opposition.
The influential Phra Dhammachayo, 72, is wanted for questioning over suspected money-laundering and numerous charges of building on land without authorization.
But there are deeper roots to a confrontation between the military-led and royalist establishment and a scandal-hit temple whose practices jar with conservatives and which is widely seen as having had links to an ousted populist movement.
Paisit Wongmuang, director-general of the police Department of Special Investigation, told reporters after another day of searching on Friday that the authorities would still try to track down Phra Dhammachayo.
But restrictions on the temple area would be lifted "when everything returns to normal". The government used the emergency law Article 44 to allow police to enter the temple.
"We are glad there is a sign of peaceful resolution but cannot rest assured until Article 44 is revoked," senior monk Phra Pasura Dantamano told Reuters.
The temple - 10 times the area of the Vatican City and topped by a UFO-shaped gold dome - dwarfs Thailand's 40,000 or so other temples in wealth as well as size. It claims millions of followers, although still a small minority of Thai Buddhists.
Phra Dhammachayo helped found the temple and remains influential. Aides say they have not seen him for months and that he is too sick for questioning. They say the charges against him are politically motivated.
The situation was a stalemate, said Kan Yuenyong of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.
"Nobody wins or loses," he said.
As the search was ending, Thailand's top religious body gave a green light for the first step in a process that could lead to the disrobing of the monk.
Phra Dhammachayo has been stripped of his monastic rank by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, but secular authorities have no power to remove the protection afforded by his monk's robes.
The head of the National Office of Buddhism, Pongporn Pramsaneh, told reporters that the top religious body, the Sangha Supreme Council, acknowledged the case against Phra Dhammachayo at a meeting on Friday.
The government would now forward the case to a senior governing monk who might proceed with steps that could lead to his disrobing even if he can't be found.
"This is the first step, and the last step will be the disrobing of Phra Dhammachayo," Pongporn said.
Traditionalist Buddhists accuse the temple of commercialism and say it has put Nirvana up for sale. It says it is just as dedicated to Theravada Buddhism as them and its money is only to do good works.
Although it rejects any suggestion of political links, it is widely seen as having had ties to the populist movement of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, overthrown in 2006, and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who led the government that was ousted in the most recent coup in 2014.
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Nick Macfie)