Luxury car tax probe delays top Thai monk appointment

BANGKOK - Thai authorities have delayed the appointment of the next top Buddhist monk pending an inquiry into whether tax was paid on a vintage Mercedes-Benz which he was given.

It is the latest controversy to roil the Buddhist clergy in a country where 95 percent of the population adhere to the faith. Monks routinely make lurid headlines for their lavish lifestyles, sex scandals and gambling.

Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangkhlacharn was nominated in early January for the post of Supreme Patriarch by Buddhism's main body, the Sangha council.

The position has been vacant since the last patriarch died in 2013 aged 100.

According to protocol, the prime minister must forward the nominee's name to the king for approval.

But the process has been delayed since the Department of Special Investigations opened a police probe into whether tax was paid on a luxury car given to the abbot by a follower.

Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana, from the Prime Minister's Office, said he would await the findings before forwarding the name of the abbot to the premier.

"We have to wait for the investigation result from DSI," he said, adding he had also asked the National Office of Buddhism for a list of "pros and cons" on the appointment.

Authorities are also examining the monk's links with the Dhammakaya temple, he added.

Last April the wealthy temple returned some $20 million given by a company executive later accused of embezzling the cash.

The temple denies any wrongdoing but remains divisive.

Its critics say it is closely linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former premier at the heart of Thailand's political rupture, and accuse the temple of trying to dominate the Thai faith.

Among those bitterly opposed to the abbot's appointment are socially conservative Buddhist nationalists who loathe Thaksin. They were instrumental in protests that led to the May 2014 coup which toppled his sister's government.

A spokesman for the Wat Pak Nam, the abbot's temple, said there had been no wrongdoing in the gift of the car. "It was an offering from a disciple," Damkerng Jindarha told AFP.

From selfies on private jets to multi-million dollar donations from allegedly crooked businessmen, Thailand's more than 61,000 Buddhist monks have been castigated for their embrace of commercialism in recent years.

The growing row over the appointment mirrors Thailand's turbulent politics and widespread uncertainty across key institutions.

The country is run by a junta, while public anxiety is deepening over the future once the reign of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej ends.