Thai clergy scuffle with soldiers as race for top monk gets ugly

16 February 2016
Thai clergy scuffle with soldiers as race for top monk gets ugly
Thai Buddhist monks confront soldiers during a protest at Buddha Monthon in Nakhon Pathom province, Thailand, 15 February 2016. Thousands of Thai Buddhist monks gathered to attend a rally calling a prompt endorsement of the new Supreme Patriarch. Photo: EPA

Buddhist monks scuffled with soldiers on Monday as thousands of orange-robed clergy met for 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 who is front-runner -- Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangkhlacharn -- 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. 
On Monday around 3,000 monks from the self-appointed "Buddhist Protection centre of Thailand" gathered on the capital's outskirts for a seminar in support of the abbot's promotion to patriarch.
Tempers flared as soldiers blocked their path to the National Office of Buddhism -- the body that oversees the religion -- where devotees had donated food.
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," SomchaiSurachatri, spokesman for the National Office of Buddhism, told AFP.
"Ordinary people wanted to give them some food but soldiers blocked them, so there was some arguing and pushing."
A spokesman for the Dhammakaya temple echoed his version of events. 
Thai Buddhism has been thrust onto the front pages as the process to appoint a new supreme patriarch -- or top monk -- descends into acrimony.
Nearly 95 percent of the country's population follow the religion and many ordinary people have expressed dismay at the rancour.
The last patriarch died in 2013 aged 100. 
The appointment of his successor has been delayed by a probe into whether tax was paid on a luxury car given to the abbot, angering his supporters who say he is the rightful successor.
Last April the Dhammakaya temple returned some $20 million given by a company executive later accused of embezzling the cash.