Buddhist monks stand in front of soldiers between a wire barricade at Dhammakaya temple, in Pathum Thani province, Thailand February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom(reuters_tickers)
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military junta removed the chief of the department responsible for overseeing Buddhist affairs and replaced him with a police officer on Saturday, amid a stand-off between officials and monks at the country's largest temple.
Thousands of followers of the Dhammakaya Temple have defied orders to leave temple grounds for over a week, blocking attempts by police to seek out their former abbot, who is accused of money laundering.
The standoff at the scandal-hit temple represents one of the biggest challenges to the authority of Thailand's junta since it took power in 2014.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha used what critics call "the dictator's law" to replace Phanom Sornsilp, the lay head of the National Office of Buddhism, with an official from the Department of Special Investigations (DSI).
"The reforms must be implemented quickly and cannot follow normal procedure," the statement in the Royal Gazette announcing the move said.
The DSI are currently in charge of ongoing operations to find and arrest Phra Dhammachayo at the Dhammakaya Temple. It has ordered 14 other senior monks belonging to the temple to give themselves up or face arrest.
The National Office of Buddhism is responsible for the administration of the religion followed by some 95 percent of Thais, but does not have the power to defrock monks.
The Dhammakaya Temple is unusual in defying the military government. Opposition from political parties and activists has largely been silenced since a coup in 2014.
The former abbot faces charges of conspiracy to launder money and receive stolen goods, as well as taking over land unlawfully to build meditation centres. His aides dismiss the accusations as politically motivated.
The Dhammakaya Temple's brasher approach to winning adherents jars on conservatives, who say it exploits its followers and uses religion to make money. The temple says it is as committed to Buddhist values as anyone else.
(Reporting by Cod Satrusayang; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Ros Russell)