More arrests likely in Thai crackdown on errant monks

Buddhist monks Phra Promdilok (left) and Phra Attakitsophon leaving the Police Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok after questioning last week.
Buddhist monks Phra Promdilok (left) and Phra Attakitsophon leaving the Police Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok after questioning last week.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Five senior monks nabbed in latest temple raids over suspected illegal financial dealings

More arrests of senior monks are expected in the coming weeks, as investigators continue their probe in one of the largest clampdowns on temple-related crimes in Thailand in recent years.

The authorities are investigating about 60 temples - including major ones - across the country for suspected illegal financial dealings.

During the latest temple raids last week, five senior monks were arrested.

Their ranks were also revoked by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, in an announcement in the Royal Gazette on Wednesday.

The five monks are among a number of suspects involved in siphoning tens of millions of baht from temple development and Buddhism study funds allocated by the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), under the Prime Minister's Office.

The cases occurred between 2011 and 2016. The monks allegedly colluded with NOB officials and had parts of the funds transferred back to the officials.

Three of the five monks arrested were members of the Sangha Supreme Council, Thailand's governing body of Buddhist monks.

The other two were senior monks from Saket temple, one of the oldest in Bangkok. They include Phra Phrom Sitthi, the temple's former abbot.

  • 60

    Number of temples across Thailand being investigated by the authorities for suspected illegal financial dealings.

  • 5

    Number of senior monks arrested during the latest temple raids last week.

The 60-year-old fled the temple when officers from the Police Crime Suppression Division raided the place last week. But he turned himself in on Wednesday.

He and Panom Sornsilp, a former head of the NOB, were charged with two accounts of embezzlement.

They allegedly pocketed almost 70 million baht (S$2.9 million) from the NOB funds.

Two of the temple's assistant abbots, along with another former NOB head, Nopparat Benjawatthanan, were charged with embezzling 10 million baht.

Saket temple also allegedly received funding for its "Buddhism school". But in reality, it does not run such a school.

Phra Promdilok, the former abbot of Sampraya temple, was charged with embezzling 10 million baht from the NOB funds.

Police are also hunting for Phra Phrom Methee, assistant abbot of Samphanthawong temple. He is said to have pocketed 5 million baht, along with Nopparat, the former NOB official.

Ninety per cent of Thailand's 69 million-strong population is Buddhist. In recent years, temples have been mired in controversies and politics.

In mid-2017, a former chief of the Department of Special Investigation, Mr Pongporn Pramsaneh, was transferred by the Cabinet to head the NOB in a bid to continue the embezzlement investigation.

It was reported that a Cabinet member who supported Saket temple had tried to remove Mr Pongporn from office but he persisted with the probe, which eventually led to the arrests.

Buddhist scholar Vichak Panich said the embezzlement cases reveal the deterioration of institutionalised Buddhism in Thailand.

"Thailand never divides the temple and the state because both have relied on each other for strength," he told The Straits Times.

"As a result, monks have become like state officials, with ranks bestowed by the state, which leads to Buddhism being politicised and the temples' focus being on materialism.

"The arrests of the monks... are not so much about individual misconduct but politics, born out of the system that is deteriorating and outdated.

"Buddhism, in its very essence, should be free from state control in order to maintain Buddhist teachings that relate to the community and the people."

Correction note: An earlier version of the story said that seven senior monks were arrested last week. It should be five. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2018, with the headline 'More arrests likely in Thai crackdown on errant monks'. Print Edition | Subscribe