Thailand's police chief returned from Germany empty-handed on June 6 after failing to seek the extradition of a now-defrocked monk wanted for questioning over his involvement in a temple fund embezzlement scandal. Chakthip Chaijinda, a police general, had been tasked with bringing back fugitive Phra Phrom Methee, the former assistant abbot of Bangkok's Wat Samphanthawong, following a series of temple raids and arrests in May. These were conducted as part of Operation Transparency, an unprecedented clean-up campaign directed at Thailand's sangha, or monastic community, which comprises 320,000 monks and 37,000 temples. Led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha
, the ruling junta is cracking down on monks who are suspected of abusing their positions as a wave of corruption scandals taints the reputation of the country's Buddhist orders. Police have now carried out arrests at 45 temples nationwide, three of which are considered of national importance and under royal patronage, including the famous Golden Mountain Temple (Wat Saket) in Bangkok, after millions of dollars were siphoned from the state budget.
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They have also imprisoned two monks from the 20-member Sangha Supreme Council — a rank comparable to cardinal in the Catholic hierarchy. This marks the first time a council member has ever been put behind bars. About a dozen monks have now been jailed as a result of the raids. However, it was the early-morning raids on three temples in Bangkok by police from the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) on May 24 that made recent headlines as officers sought the arrest of seven senior monks including then-Phra Phrom Methee, whose lay name is Chamnon Iamintra. They arrested five of their targets at Wat Samphanthawong, Wat Sa Ket and Wat Sam Phraya while Chamnon escaped, allegedly abetted by three Thai and two Lao accomplices. Former Wat Sa Ket abbot Phra Phrom Sitthi later surrendered to CSD officers. The regime is now investigating several immigration officials believed to be complicit in Chamnon's elaborate escape, which reportedly saw him bolt to Nakhon Phanom in a van before making his way across the Mekong River into Laos. From there he traveled through Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where he took a Qatar Airways flight to Frankfurt and sought asylum on June 2, Chakthip was quoted as saying by local Thai media. Pundits say this game of cat-and-mouse shows how the regime is going to unusual lengths to bring errant monks to justice while also struggling to nab or extradite suspects due to a combination of missteps and ingrained graft. Thailand's monastic community has been losing its luster for years
due to a widespread perception of slipping moral standards among its upper echelons of power highlighted by a number of egregious tales of greed and crime. While Chamnon is accused of embezzling and laundering money, among other allegations, "playboy monk" Luang Pu Nenkham was reportedly planning to launch his own religion in California at one point after rumors emerged he had obtained refugee status in the U.S. In 2013 photos of the ex-monk, whose real name is Wirapol Sukphol, went viral showing him riding around in a private jet with Louis Vuitton handbags as he amassed staggering wealth before fleeing Thailand amid charges of fraud, rape and having sex with a minor. Thai authorities have since seized over 300 million baht (US$9.4 million) from 41 bank accounts allegedly belonging to Wirapol, whose shopping spree included 22 Mercedes-Benz cars, according to Thai and foreign media reports. It took four years for Thai authorities to secure his extradition. The latest crackdown, however, relates to money that was misappropriated from a US$130-million budget. It is allocated to temples each year to fund the maintenance and construction of buildings, support Buddhist educational programs and pay the salaries of about 40,000 administrative monks. The National Office of Buddhism (NOB) was found to have sent tranches of this budget to temple abbots supervising such projects but the money was then redirected to their own personal bank accounts. While this practice is believed to have been going on for years, the new head of the NOB, Lt. Col. Pongporn Pramsaneh, has shown his teeth in going after top monks suspected of colluding in this systematic embezzlement. Yet regime critics contend that all may not be what it seems as some of the targets are known to have political affiliations that run contrary to the interests of the government. One of those now behind bars is the former Phra Buddha Isara, a known activist who was defrocked and jailed last month after Thailand's Criminal Court rejected his bail request out of fear he could tamper with evidence. He played a key role in the demonstrations carried out in 2014 against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, another fugitive from the law who Thai police seem incapable of extraditing. She fled a court ruling on a corruption case last year and has reportedly now secured a U.K. visa. Despite throwing his support behind the current regime and welcoming the May 2014 coup that installed it in power, he now faces a raft of charges including torturing plainclothes officers in 2014 and using royal symbols without authorization on amulets produced for sale at his temple in 2011. Yet some observers feel his arrest was designed to coincide with those of other senior monks linked to the controversial Dhammakaya temple in a bid to create a semblance of impartiality, as he had been critical of the temple. Public response to the arrest of Phra Buddha Isara was mixed. Some were angry at the "disrespectful" way in which he had been apprehended — armed commandos stormed the compound and reportedly woke him at gunpoint — and Prayut felt compelled to issue an apology later for the brutal tactics. But in most other cases the general public seems to have tacitly or vocally endorsed the arrests as the regime is seen as moving to stamp out abusive practices linked to the misappropriation of temple funds. Some figures, with certain media outlets at the vanguard, are calling for the government to take even more steps. This comes as the public appears to be losing faith in the temple abbots and their legally sanctioned, discretionary spending powers in regard to donations by lay Buddhists. Studies show such pledges amounted to US$3.77 billion in 2014, far exceeding the size of state-allocated temple funds. Critics say there are still significant kinks to iron out of the system as the abbots, governed by the Sangha Act, are supposed to set up "management committees" to oversee the disbursal of the donations and send annual financial reports to the NOB. But in reality, they claim, the legitimacy of these committees is thoroughly undermined by cronyism, this rendering them ineffective. Such a lack of transparency has prompted calls for independent audits of temple transactions. Yet while the monastic community struggles with a loss of credibility, the cleanup operation remains a controversial subject as some people feel the regime lacks the moral authority to intervene so deeply in monastic affairs. This undercurrent has been bubbling up the surface in the wake of numerous graft scandals implicating some of the highest ruling generals, notably a luxury watch scandal involving Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. While the junta now appears more than eager to slap handcuffs on senior monks accused of corruption, critics say, it has attempted to cover up similar allegations against those within its own ranks, with no sanctions imposed.