BANGKOK A handful of Buddhist monks scuffled with troops in Thailand on Monday during a protest against what they called state interference in religious affairs and a bid to overthrow the governing body of their religion.
Religion is becoming a proxy war for the color-coded politics that Thailand's junta has quashed since taking power in 2014 in an effort to end a decade of political violence.
A battle for the top post in Thai Buddhism has divided Thailand between supporters of the leading candidate, a 90-year-old abbot facing investigation for a tax scam involving luxury cars, and those who oppose him.
Critics say the battle is an extension of a deep-rooted crisis, involving scandals over lavish lifestyles, sexual impropriety and drugs that have tarnished the reputation of the country's dominant religion.
Television images showed troops and saffron-clad, shaven-headed monks shoving each other after troops tried to keep the monks from entering the park, in Nakhon Pathom province west of Bangkok.
"Don't touch monks!" shouted some of those watching, while some civilians held up placards urging the government to declare Buddhism as Thailand's national religion.
About 1,000 monks had gathered to express support for Thai Buddhism's governing body, said one of them, Methi Thammacharn, secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection Center.
"We will not move until the state stops interfering in religious affairs," Methi told media.
The mostly peaceful gathering saw more monks join late on Monday afternoon, with many sitting and praying on a lawn.
The frontrunner for the top post, Somdej Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, also known as Somdej Chuang, has ties to the wealthy Dhammakaya Temple, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption for years.
Last year, Thai Buddhism's governing body, the Sangha Supreme Council, cleared the monastery's abbot of allegations that he had embezzled donations running into millions of dollars.
The abbot rejects the fraud allegations.
Critics say Thailand's military government must not endorse Somdej Chuang's nomination and should honor a pledge to stamp out the 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.
Police Major General Charnthep Sesawej, head of Provincial Police Region 7, said most of the monks who gathered were supporters of the Dhammakaya Temple.
"We want them to stop gathering by this evening," he said, adding that authorities wanted to keep the crowd under control.
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)