A defrocked Buddhist monk extradited from the United States recently received a 114-year prison sentence for fraud and money laundering, while police raided some of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temples in pursuit of wayward monks and officials allegedly involved in financial crimes.

Monk Wirapol Sukphol first attracted attention in 2013 when he appeared in a YouTube video flaunting wads of cash while cruising on a private jet. Accusations of sexual assault with an underage girl and other allegations resulted in his monastic name, Luang Pu Nenkham, being revoked and a warrant issued for his arrest.

After he escaped to California, he was extradited to Bangkok in 2017. Despite a 114-year prison sentence from Bangkok’s Criminal Court on August 9, Wirapol will be eligible for release in 20 years under Thailand’s statutory limits.

The court ordered him to repay 29 devotees who he cheated out of US$1 million in various scams, which may soon be refunded from his seized assets. He is also awaiting trial on charges of child molestation and child abduction.

“This is the purge of a lifetime. Never have there been such high-profile arrests and so many prominent monks falling from grace,” said Yale University-educated constitutional law scholar Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang.

Thailand’s biggest-ever investigation and crackdown against corruption among officials and senior saffron-robed Buddhist monks comes amid widespread public dismay about some ascetics’ all-too-worldly behaviors and lavish lifestyles.

Buddhist monks are occasionally jailed for murder, drug dealing, sex crimes and other violations in Thailand, a nation where Buddhism is practiced by as much as 95% of the population.

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Defrocked and criminally convicted Buddhist monk Wirapol Sukpol heads to court in August 2018. Photo: Facebook

But the current arrests and imprisonments expose crime at the top echelons of the powerful and wealthy official Buddhist hierarchy, which oversees an increasingly scandal-ridden, commercialized religion.

Thailand’s ruling military junta seized power in a 2014 coup partly on the claim that “corruption” needed to be purged across all Thai society. Many people expected politicians and businessmen to be targeted, but it appears their self-touted “clean-up” campaign has spread to certain top monks and abbots in the previously aloft Buddhist clergy.

Previous elected civilian governments may have shied away from such widespread busts because the overall popular support Buddhist monks enjoy might have cost them votes at election time. The military government, on the other hand, seems less concerned about such popular sentiments.

In 2017, after months of lenient treatment, thousands of the junta’s security forces raided Thailand’s biggest Buddhist temple, Wat Dhammakaya, situated on the outskirts of Bangkok, but failed to find the ex-abbot Phra Dhammachayo who is wanted for alleged financial crimes.

A diplomat who requested anonymity said some of the recent arrests of Buddhist monks appear to be personalities who supported Phra Dhammachayo and thus from the military’s perspective also needed to be purged.

Buddhist monks face the police in front of Wat Dhammakaya temple just north of Bangkok on February 16, 2017. Soldiers and police surrounded a scandal-hit Buddhist temple on Bangkok's outskirts early Thursday in apparent preparation for a raid to arrest the sect's spiritual leader after Thailand's junta leader invoked special powers to put the site under military control. / AFP PHOTO / LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA
Buddhist monks face the police in front of Wat Dhammakaya temple on February 16, 2017. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

In May, an infamous, politically powerful abbot, Phra Buddha Issara, was also busted, defrocked and imprisoned. His alleged crimes ranged from forging the initials of Thailand’s queen and late king on fake Buddhist amulets, running a secret organization, and stealing guns from police.

He gained notoriety as a fiery protest leader during the 2014 so-called “Bangkok Shutdown” strikes and occupations which crippled the elected government and paved the way for the military’s coup.

For decades, senior Buddhist monks have been able to oversee – and sometimes steal – cash from unaccounted and untaxed donations offered by millions of Thai devotees to temples.

Many monks are also deeply involved in lucrative markets selling “lucky” Buddhist amulets, predicting fortunes and other money-related, un-Buddhist activity.

On August 1, in a separate case, police arrested 10 officials who allegedly joined senior Buddhist monks in embezzling US$10 million from the government’s National Office of Buddhism (NOB) fund, which is used for temples’ maintenance, schools and to promote Buddhism.

The alleged embezzlement and money laundering occurred when NOB officials paid huge amounts to some temples – knowing it would be pocketed by corrupt monks – in exchange for huge kickbacks.

Buddhist monks pray during a ceremony to celebrate the 86th birthday of Thai Queen Sirikit of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Narathiwat on August 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Madaree TOHLALA
Buddhist monks pray during a ceremony to celebrate the 86th birthday of Thai Queen Sirikit of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Narathiwat on August 12, 2018. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The NOB annually grants about $150 million to Buddhist temples throughout Thailand, which house more than 300,000 monks. Most of the cash, however, is awarded to Bangkok’s famous temples to dole out to smaller upcountry temples.

Monks and NOB officials arrested during the past four months allegedly supervised fund payments, receipts or accounting. All suspects face charges under the Money Laundering Act or other laws. They were imprisoned and await a hearing by the Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases.

Thailand hopes Washington will also extradite former NOB director Nopparat Benjawatananun, who has reportedly fled to the US.

The $10-million investigation focuses on 30 temples nationwide, including Bangkok’s majestic Wat Saket, a mammoth, hilltop edifice known as The Temple of the Golden Mount. Wat Saket is popular with tourists and several important, solemn Buddhist ceremonies are performed there each year.

In May, 200 Crime Suppression Division police raided Wat Saket and two other main temples suspected of embezzlement. During those raids, six monks including Wat Saket’s abbot and three assistant abbots were arrested, defrocked, forced to disrobe in court, and jailed while they await trial.

At a Buddhist temple in Bangkok’s Chinatown, police discovered Wat Samphanthawong’s assistant abbot Phra Phrom Methee fled to Germany. He was a member of the highest governing body of Thai Buddhists, the powerful Sangha Supreme Council. The Council licenses ordination to certified monks, oversees their exams, and controls Buddhist orthodoxy, Khemthong said.

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Thai activist monk Phra Buddha Issara is led by authorities to the Criminal Court in Bangkok on May 24, 2018. Photo: Reuters

“The Sangha Council is being subject to a massive purge related to financial scandals, whereby senior abbots and well as civil servants have been arrested,” he said. “Accountability [is] something the Sangha has long failed to enforce internally.”

National Police Chief Chakthip Chaijinda and his team flew to Germany in June to apprehend the defrocked monk, whose civilian name is Chamnon Iamintra. Germany, however, reportedly said it was considering his asylum request.

Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who oversees the police, said he told Germany the case did not involve politics, so asylum should be rejected. One woman reportedly escaped to England in June after allegedly helping Chamnon, police said.

In June, the Anti-Money Laundering Office froze $4 million in 10 bank accounts held by four of the defrocked monks, including Chamnon. Other arrested monks include Bangkok’s ecclesiastical governor and his secretary. Police seized computers, databases and smartphones as possible evidence from the monks’ temples and residences.

The police’s Counter-Corruption Division has said 340 million baht ($10 million) of state money has been lost in temple fund embezzlement scandals following three rounds of investigations into temples across the country, local media reported.