Thai junta grants king power to appoint top monk

Buddhist monks pray at the gate of Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani, Thailand, on Dec 27, 2016.
Buddhist monks pray at the gate of Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani, Thailand, on Dec 27, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's military government on Thursday (Dec 29) granted the king power to appoint the Buddhist country's top monk, a move aimed at resolving a bitter power struggle over the venerated post.

The position of Supreme Patriarch has been left open for several years as Thailand's Buddhist factions tussle over a successor.

Thai junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha has refrained from endorsing the front runner nominated by the kingdom's ruling council of monks, a body known as the Sangha.

The 91-year-old nominee, Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangkhlacharn, has drawn criticism from some circles for his perceived links to the scandal-hit Dhammakaya sect.

Critics say the breakaway order emphasises materialism and many mainstream Buddhists fear it is poised to take over the nation's faith.

On Thursday Thailand's parliament approved an amendment that hands the king power to appoint any monk for the post - thereby cutting out the vote of the Sangha.

Lawmaker Somchai Swangkarn denied that the move was calculated to block the rise of Phra Ratchamangkhlacharn, who is also facing a probe for alleged tax evasion on a luxury car.

"The amendment of this law is not to prevent any single person," he said after the amendment sailed through the junta-appointed parliament in three rapid-fire readings.

While the move opens up a path for a new monk to lead the faith, little is known about who Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn might favour.

The rancorous battle over the patriarch post is only the latest controversy to dog the clergy in a country where 95 per cent of the population are Buddhist.

Monks routinely make lurid headlines for their lavish lifestyles, sex scandals and gambling.

The ultra-rich Dhammakaya temple in particular has become engulfed in legal scandals, with its elderly abbott accused of money laundering and land encroachment.