Updated: October 20, 2021 04:44 AM GMT
Buddhist monks look on during Makha Bucha celebrations at Wat Dhammakaya, north of Bangkok, on Feb. 26. A series of scandals have tarnished the image of monks. (Photo: AFP)
A prominent Buddhist monk has been arrested in Thailand over allegations he played a major part in embezzling a large sum of money earmarked for a Buddhist charity.
Phra Khru Suthitarakapirak, who served as the abbot of Wat Suthiwari in Chantaburi province, near Bangkok, has been charged with working in cahoots with several senior local officials in embezzling 17 million baht (US$500,000) from the Chanthaburi Buddha Monthon Foundation.
According to police, some officials and the senior clergyman pocketed the money after falsifying the true cost of a newly constructed building for the charity.
The arrest of the monk is the latest in a series of criminal cases, including the embezzlement of temple funds, that have involved monks and tarnished the image of the Buddhist clergy in the Southeast Asian nation where monks are held in high esteem.
Last year Phanom Sornsilp, a former head of the country’s National Office of Buddhism, was sentenced to 94 years in prison after being convicted of embezzling money from funds allocated to 30 Buddhist temples.
Phanom’s accomplices included several senior monks who also benefited financially from a scheme that saw some 300 million baht ($9 million) embezzled from temple funds over several years, according to police.
Instead, however, he used the donations from lay Buddhists to finance his lavish lifestyle, which included the purchase of several luxury cars
“While this national scandal exposed power abuse in the top echelons of religious affairs regulators and misappropriation of funds by senior monks, temple donation corruption is common across the country,” said Thanthip Srisuwannaket, a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute.
In another high-profile case that caused national outrage, a one-time Buddhist monk called Luang Pu Nenkham Chattiko was sentenced to 114 years in prison in 2018 after he was found guilty of fraud, money laundering and other crimes.
In 2013, the monk began soliciting donations for his putative plan to build a giant imitation of the revered Emerald Buddha image housed in Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
Instead, however, he used the donations from lay Buddhists to finance his lavish lifestyle, which included the purchase of several luxury cars.
The man, whose civil name is Wirapol Sukphol, was also charged with child molestation in a national scandal. Before his arrest, he fled to the United States from where he was extradited back to Thailand.
Some Buddhists nuns, too, have been charged with embezzling donations from worshippers.
Earlier this year three nuns were arrested and charged with defrauding several hundred locals via a pyramid scheme-like investment scam they operated at a meditation center near Bangkok.
The Buddhist clergywomen had encouraged hundreds of people to invest in a scheme by promising them high returns. Instead of delivering on the promised returns, however, the three nuns pocketed at least 10 million baht ($300,000), according to police.
If corruption corrodes religious faith, financial transparency is the cure. When this happens, restoring public trust and faith will be within arm’s reach
With corruption soaring in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, the country’s temples are “facing a serious erosion of public faith due to rife corruption in the closed, non-transparent clergy,” according to Thanthip.
In order to combat the scourge of corruption, the expert has called for greater financial transparency at Thailand’s 41,000 Buddhist temples where state-allocated funds and private donations are often spent in opaque ways.
“If corruption corrodes religious faith, financial transparency is the cure,” Thanthip said in a statement published by Thailand Development Research Institute, adding that Buddhist temples should use professional accountants and “open the closed, top-down system to external auditing and monitoring.”
“When this happens, restoring public trust and faith will be within arm’s reach,” she said.
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