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Thailand's Buddhism chief removed after pressure from religious groups

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s junta has removed the head of the national Buddhism office, the prime minister said on Tuesday, after religious groups called on the government to sack him over his plans to clean up scandal-hit monasteries.

Thailand's head of the National Office for Buddhism Pongporn Pramsaneh, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bangkok, Thailand June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Patpicha Tanakasempipat/Files

But Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said it wasn’t a punishment.

Pongporn Pramsaneh, who joined the National Office of Buddhism in February, had vowed to reform Thailand’s more than 40,000 temples by forcing them to open their finances to the public. They take billions of dollars in donations every year.

The former policeman was appointed amid a standoff between security forces and the influential Dhammakaya temple in February. Authorities wanted to question the temple’s chief abbot on money-laundering charges.

Pongporn will now move to a lower profile post of inspector-general in Prayuth’s office.

“He has got some of the jobs done. He came in to solve temple issues,” Prayuth told reporters. “I’ll now bring him close to me, to help me work on religious reform... This is not a punishment.”

Pongporn told Reuters: “I have done my duties to the best of my ability.”

Buddhism is one of the three traditional pillars of Thai society alongside the nation and monarchy. It has largely eluded the junta’s control as it has stamped its authority on other aspects of Thai life since a 2014 coup.

The National Office of Buddhism is responsible for state administration of the religion followed by 90 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people, but religious affairs are handled by a Sangha Supreme Council of elderly monks.

Despite high-profile temple scandals over murder, drugs and sex as well as improper financial dealings, Pongporn’s call for change had jarred on some monks.

A group called the Thailand Buddhists Federation submitted a petition to the prime minister’s office this month, calling for Pongporn to be removed to “prevent further damage to monks”.

“He painted monks as villains in Thai people’s eyes,” the group’s secretary-general, Korn Meedee, said in a statement on Facebook.

In July, another Buddhist group had called for Pongporn’s removal, saying he had damaged the Buddhist institution.

Phra Buddha Issara, a firebrand monk who called for reform of Buddhism, said the junta gave in to pressure too easily given government promises to fight corruption.

“Are they still serious about tackling corruption or are they only moving against certain people and groups?” he said, adding that when it came to monks: “No one can touch them.”

Reuters reported exclusively in March that the junta was drafting a law which would significantly weaken the Sangha Council. The draft is expected to be brought to parliament this year.

Thai security forces besieged the Dhammakaya Temple in February to try to catch its former abbot, wanted for questioning on money laundering. But police failed to catch him and he is still on the run.

Reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Panarat Thepgumpanat Panu Wongcha-um, and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin