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Portraits of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej are displayed at a department store in central Bangkok, Thailand, January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha


By Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's king has appointed a new Buddhist supreme patriarch, the prime minister said on Tuesday, ending more than a year of tussling over the position that had been fuelled by politics and allegations of corruption.

Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, 89, the abbot of Wat Rajabopit, will be the head of more than 300,000 monks in the Southeast Asian country, where 95 percent of people are Buddhist. The country's last supreme patriarch, Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, died in 2013 aged 100.

The Sangha Supreme Council of monks had proposed their favoured candidate last year. But the junta vetoed him and the military-appointed parliament granted new King Maha Vajiralongkorn the power to pick a chief monk himself instead of relying on the council.

Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong was among five senior monks nominated by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for royal consideration.

"This went according to the King's wishes and consideration," the prime minister told reporters.

The Sangha council of monks had originally nominated Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, also known as Somdet Chuang, for the patriarchy, but the appointment was blocked by the government.

Somdet Chuang has been under investigation since 2013 for a tax scam involving luxury cars.

He also has ties with the wealthy Dhammakaya Temple, which faces money laundering and land encroachment cases against its influential former abbot and is accused by traditionalists of being too materialistic - an accusation it rejects.

The Sangha Supreme Council made no immediate comment on the appointment of Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong.

A political analyst said it was a compromise between the two major camps in Thai Buddhism, traditionalists and modernisers as represented by the Dhammakaya sect.

"He is a neutral candidate and doesn't seem tipped to any one side," Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank, told Reuters.

Thai Buddhism has for years been tainted by reports of misbehaving monks and mishandling of temple donations, allegations some worshippers say have eroded its relevance in the deeply spiritual country.

The king will attend the inauguration ceremony for the new supreme patriarch in Bangkok on Feb. 12.

The king took the throne in December and shortly afterwards he was granted the power to appoint the patriarch - reverting to the system used for naming the senior monk until 1992.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Robert Birsel)

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