Thai monks scuffle with troops amid leadership row

Buddhist monks in a scuffle with soldiers during a protest in Nakhon Pathom province west of Bangkok yesterday. Around 3,000 monks gathered for a seminar there to support abbot Somdej Chuang, the front runner for the post of Thailand's Supreme Patria
Buddhist monks in a scuffle with soldiers during a protest in Nakhon Pathom province west of Bangkok yesterday. Around 3,000 monks gathered for a seminar there to support abbot Somdej Chuang, the front runner for the post of Thailand's Supreme Patriarch. The abbot is linked to the powerful but divisive Dhammakaya temple connected to Thaksin Shinawatra.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK • Buddhist monks scuffled with soldiers yesterday as thousands of orange-robed clergy met at a seminar to support the front runner for the post of Thailand's Supreme Patriarch.

The row over the appointment mirrors Thailand's turbulent politics, with the abbot and front runner - Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangkhlacharn, also known as Somdej Chuang - linked to the powerful but divisive Dhammakaya temple.

Critics say the temple is closely linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former premier at the heart of the country's political rupture, and accuse it of trying to dominate the Thai faith.

Among those bitterly opposed to the abbot's appointment are influential Buddhist nationalists who loathe Thaksin.

Around 3,000 monks from the self-appointed "Buddhist Protection Centre of Thailand" gathered in Nakhon Pathom province west of Bangkok for a seminar in support of the abbot's promotion to Supreme Patriarch - or top monk.

Tempers flared as soldiers blocked their path to the National Office of Buddhism - the body that oversees the religion - where devotees had donated food.

"Don't touch monks!" shouted some spectators, while civilians held up placards urging the government to declare Buddhism as Thailand's national religion.

Local media showed robed monks scuffling with uniformed troops as they tried to barge through the army's line.

"Around 3,000 monks came for the seminar," said Mr Somchai Surachatri, spokesman for the National Office of Buddhism. "Ordinary people wanted to give them some food but soldiers blocked them, so there was some arguing and pushing."

The Dhammakaya temple has been dogged by allegations of corruption for years.

In April last year, the Dhammakaya temple returned some US$20 million (S$28 million) given by a company executive later accused of embezzling the cash.

The appointment of the new Supreme Patriarch has been delayed by a probe into whether tax was paid on a luxury car given to Somdej Chuang, angering his supporters who say he is the rightful successor.

But critics say Thailand's military government must not endorse the abbot's nomination and should honour a pledge to stamp out corrupt practices.

"We need to reform Thai Buddhism because it has become rotten and lost its way," said activist monk Buddha Issara, who is leading the fight against Somdej Chuang.

Thai Buddhism has been thrust under the spotlight as the process to appoint a new Supreme Patriarch descends into acrimony.

Nearly 95 per cent of the country's population follow the religion and many ordinary people have expressed dismay at the rancour. Thailand's last patriarch died in 2013, aged 100.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Thai monks scuffle with troops amid leadership row'. Print Edition | Subscribe