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Thai soldiers stand guard at the entrance to the Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani province, Thailand March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom


By Panarat Thepgumpanat and Aukkarapon Niyomyat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's government is trying to get a new abbot appointed to head the country's biggest Buddhist temple, whose former leader is wanted for money laundering, an official said on Thursday.

Police pulled back from a three-week siege of the Dhammakaya temple this month after failing to find Phra Dhammachayo in a search that was frustrated by monks and devotees in one of the biggest challenges to Thailand's junta since a 2014 coup.

Dhammachayo, 72, is wanted for questioning for suspected money-laundering and on numerous charges of building on land without authorisation.

Thailand's National Office of Buddhism had proposed to religious authorities that a monk with no affiliation to the temple should now be appointed to lead it, the head of the government office, Pongporn Pramsaneh, told Reuters.

This would help with an investigation into the temple's assets and in the process of disrobing Dhammachayo, he said.

"The monk in chief should be someone the society can rely on for unbiased action and judgment," Pongporn said.

The proposal on changing the leadership was made to the most senior monk in the Pathum Thani province, where the temple is located.

The temple's current acting abbot is Dhammachayo's deputy, Phra Dattajivo, but police last week said they were investigating him for using temple money in stock dealing.

The temple said the accusation was "fake news" and that none of its money had gone into stocks.

The Dhammayaka temple, nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City, dwarfs Thailand's other temples in wealth as well as size. It claims millions of followers, although still a small minority of Thai Buddhists.

Traditionalist Buddhists accuse the temple of commercialism, though it says it is just as dedicated to Theravada Buddhism as them and its money is only to do good works.

Pongporn said the Buddhist governing body in Pathum Thani province would convene to inspect the Dhammakaya temple's financial records at the end of the month.

(Additional reporting and writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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