Seven Buddhist monks and two others are being held after being arrested for allegedly embezzling cash and items worth a total of 300 million baht (US$8.9 million). The items and cash were among donations given by devotees to Wat Pa Thammakhiri, a Buddhist monastery in Nakhon Ratchasima Province in northeast Thailand.
The theft is believed to date back to 2020 and, according to the criminal court for corruption and misconduct cases, the actions “gravely undermined Buddhism.” (ABC News)
The case initially broke with the arrest of three individuals: a meditation teacher named Khom Kongkaew; the former abbot of the temple, Wuttima Thaomor; and the abbot’s sister, Juthathip Phutbodhiwarochupan.
The three had allegedly been hiding money and other donations for years. At the police station, Khom made a phone call during which he instructed monks at the temple to hide stolen property, tipping off the police to conduct a further search. In their search, the police arrested six more suspects, including five former monks and a driver.
According to a local resident, several of the monks, whose quarters were built on a hill behind the temple, were walking in the area in a suspicious manner. The resident said he suspected something was going on but did not tell anyone.
As reported in Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper, local villagers also noticed that the temple attracted a lot of wealthy devotees who arrived in luxury cars.
Thai police have charged the suspects with abusing their power to embezzle money, supporting officials in the abuse of power to embezzle money, and incorrectly performing or neglecting their duty. Jutthathip Phutbodhiwarochupan was charged with receiving goods stolen at the temple. She was caught with 120 million baht (US$3.8 million) in her bank account along with 51 million baht (US$1.5 million) in cash hidden in her home.
Thai Buddhist officials have already defrocked Khom Kongkaew based on this incident, as well as previous allegations of taking part in a sexual relationship with one of his followers. He had been a popular monk due to his “rhetorical style of preaching,” which attracted many people. (The Straits Times)
Thai Buddhism has long been marred by cases of abuse of power and corruption. In 2018, the government made a number of high-profile arrests in what they say were efforts to clean up the sangha. Despite these and other efforts, in 2022, VICE World News reported on the continued string of cases against the country’s Buddhist monastics.
“Monks committing crimes is often reported in Thai media outlets, but it isn’t a recent social trend,” said Katewadee Kulabkaew, a Thai Buddhism politics scholar and former visiting fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “This problem has chronically plagued the Thai Sangha for decades.” (Vice World News)
Thailand is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 94.5 per cent of the population identifying as Buddhists, according to 2015 census data. Temples in Thailand rely heavily on gifts from laypeople to sustain their work of spreading the teachings of Buddhism. In turn, the laypeople believe they can gain “merit” which can provide tangible benefits in this life as well as favorable rebirths. Along with Buddhism in Thailand, Islam and Christianity make up the two largest minority religions, with 4.29 per cent and 1.17 per cent of the population respectively.
80 million baht cash found buried at Buddhist temple in Thailand (The Thaiger)
7 Buddhist monks accused of embezzling more than $5.3 million donated to temple in Thailand (ABC News)
7 Buddhist monks arrested for allegedly embezzling nearly $12m from Thai temple (The Straits Times)
Thailand’s junta renews corruption crackdown on Buddhist monks (The Guardian)
Buddhist Monks Keep Getting Arrested for Corruption, Murder and Drug Trafficking (VICE World News)
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