Updated: April 29, 2021 04:07 AM GMT
A file photo of Buddhist nuns attending a meeting in Thailand. Clergymen and clergywomen are generally accorded reverential respect by Thai Buddhists. (Photo: YouTube)
Three Buddhist nuns have been arrested and charged with defrauding several hundred Thais by help of a pyramid scheme-like investment scam conducted at a meditation center near Bangkok.
The nuns were caught after some 400 people had complained to police that the Buddhist clergywomen had encouraged them to invest in a scheme promising high returns but failed to deliver on the promised windfalls.
The nuns, aged 49, 45 and 31, have defrauded people of at least 10 million baht (US$310,000), according to police.
The Buddhist clergywomen denied the charge, telling police the funds they had collected had been earmarked for charity projects to help the poor. They promised to repay all the money to the donors “at an auspicious time.”
Mae Chee Ou (Mother Ou), the 49-year-old senior nun who owns the Phra Phutsikkhi meditation center in Nakhon Phanom province, argued that the people who had invested money in the scheme and complained of not getting their money back were greedy.
She said the money should have been seen as donations that would earn karmic merit for the donors.
Temple donation corruption is common across the country
Mae Chee Ou, who claimed to be an ordained nun, is an impostor without a real clerical background, according to a senior Buddhist official in the province.
Clergymen and clergywomen, instantly recognizable by their shaved heads and trademark garbs, are generally accorded reverential respect by Thai Buddhists.
Yet many people of the cloth have been found to engage in practices unbecoming of their religious status by preying on the gullibility of laypeople for personal gain.
Cases of corruption, such as the embezzlement of donations and temple funds, are common around Thailand, where there are some 41,000 Buddhist temples and where nearly 95 percent of the country’s 69 million citizens are Buddhists.
In a recent scandal, corrupt officials at the National Office of Buddhism were found to have secretly colluded with senior monks at various monasteries whereby they allocated funds from the budget to these temples in return for large cuts from those approved funds.
The scheme came to light in 2017 when the abbot of a monastery reported to police that an official of the National Office of Buddhism had demanded 10 million baht back from funds given to his temple for repair work.
The corrupt officials had by then pocketed at least 270 million baht ($8.6 million) from the scheme in just a few years, according to police.
“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,” observes Thanthip Srisuwannaket, a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute.
Many fundraising activities pose a huge challenge for transparent temple financial management
In another scandal, a popular monk called Luang Pu Nen Kham Chattiko began soliciting funds so that he could build a giant imitation of the Emerald Buddha, a sacred Buddha image housed at Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
Yet instead of using the donations for the project, he spent the money on a lavish lifestyle, including several new homes and expensive cars.
At several other temples monks have been found to spend donations on themselves rather than on repair work and charity, as expected.
“Many fundraising activities pose a huge challenge for transparent temple financial management,” Thanthip says.
“Even when the abbots do not bow to temptation, without professional skills and experience in accounting, they are prone to being deceived by ill-intentioned people to syphon temple money for personal gains.”