Thai monks clash with army over leadership row

Dhammakaya Temple, Pathum Thani Province, north of Bangkok. Source: Pixabay

A group of Buddhist monks have clashed with troops in Thailand during a protest condemning state interference in religious affairs and an alleged bid to overthrow the Thai Buddhist ruling body.

Religion is becoming increasingly politicised in junta-ruled Thailand.

A battle for the Thai Buddhist leadership has divided the kingdom between those who support a 90-year-old abbot facing an investigation over a tax scam involving luxury cars and on the other side his opponents.

Observers say the disagreement is related to scandals over lavish lifestyles, sexual impropriety and drugs that have tarnished Buddhism’s reputation in Thailand.

Soldiers and shaven monks were seen pushing each other after service personnel blocked the monks from entering the park in Nakhon Pathom province to the west of Bangkok.

Tempers flared as troops blocked their path to the National Office of Buddhism, which oversees the religion.

“Don’t touch monks,” they shouted. Civilians held banners calling the junta to recognise Buddhism as the national religion.

Methi Thammacharn, secretary general of the Buddhism Protection Centre, said around 1,000 monks had congregated to show their support for the Thai Buddhist governing organisation.

“We will not move until the state stops interfering in religious affairs,” Methi announced.

The favourite for the role, Somdej Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, also known as Somdej Chuang, has ties to the wealthy Dhammakaya Temple, Pathum Thani Province north of Bangkok, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption for many years.

Critics say the temple is allied to Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former populist prime minister at the heart of the country’s political crisis, and accuse it of trying to dominate the Thai faith.

In April last year, the temple returned some US$20 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.

The Sangha Supreme Council in 2015 cleared the monastery’s abbot of charges that he embezzled millions of dollars in donations.

Those opposed to the abbot’s appointment include influential Buddhist nationalists who oppose Thaksin.

Some campaigners say Thailand’s ruling generals should refuse to endorse Somdej Chuang’s nomination and fight graft instead, as they have promised to do.

“We need to reform Thai Buddhism because it has become rotten and lost its way,” said monk Buddha Issara, a prominent opponent of Somdej Chuang.

Police Major General Charnthep Sesawej said most of the saffron-clad monks at the protest were Dhammakaya Temple devotees.

Nearly 95 per cent of the Thai population is Buddhist. Thailand’s last patriarch died in 2013 aged 100.