BANGKOK, Thailand -- A defrocked Buddhist monk, extradited from the U.S., received a 114-year prison sentence for fraud and money laundering while police raided some of Thailand's most important Buddhist temples, jailing monks and officials allegedly involved in a separate case of money laundering and kickbacks totaling $10 million.

 

Investigators are now hunting suspects in that $10 million case who reportedly fled to the U.S., England, Germany and elsewhere.

 

"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-educated constitutional law scholar Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang.

 

Thailand's biggest-ever investigation and crackdown against corruption among officials and senior orange-robed Buddhist monks comes amid widespread public dismay about some monks' behavior and lavish lifestyles.

 

Buddhist monks are occasionally jailed for murder, drug dealing, sex crimes and other violations in this Southeast Asian nation where Buddhism is practiced by 95 percent of the population.

 

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

 

The military junta seized power in a 2014 coup by claiming "corruption" needed to be purged from Thailand.  

 

Many people expected politicians and businessmen to be targeted, but it appears their selective campaign has spread to some top monks and abbots in the previously aloft Buddhist clergy.

 

Previous elected civilian governments may have shied away from such high-profile busts because the overall support Buddhist monks enjoy might have meant a crackdown could result in lost votes. 

 

The junta could be less concerned about such an impact on any future polls.

 

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

 

A diplomat said some of the current arrests against Buddhist monks appear to be personalities who supported Phra Dhammachayo and thus needed to also be purged.

 

Also during May an infamous, politically powerful abbot, Phra Buddha Issara, was also busted, defrocked and imprisoned.

 

He allegedly forged the initials of Thailand's queen and late king on fake Buddhist amulets, ran a secret organization, and was involved in stealing guns from police.

 

He gained notoriety during the 2014 so-called "Bangkok Shutdown" strikes and occupations which crippled the elected government, enabling the military to unleash their coup.

 

While in jail awaiting trial, he was defrocked and disrobed but voiced strong support for the junta, apparently hoping that will weigh in his favor.

 

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

 

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

 

Despite a 114-year prison sentence from Bangkok's criminal court on August 9, Mr. 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 $1 million dollars in various scams, which may soon be refunded from his seized assets.

 

He is awaiting trial on charges of child molestation and child abduction.

 

Mr. Wirapol attracted attention in 2013 when he appeared in a YouTube video flaunting wads of cash and 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.

 

After he escaped to the California, he was extradited to Bangkok in 2017.

 

On August 1, in a separate case, police arrested 10 officials who allegedly joined senior Buddhist monks in embezzling $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.

 

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 extradite former NOB director Nopparat Benjawatananun who reportedly fled to the U.S.

 

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, Mr. Khemthong said.

 

"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," Mr. Khemthong said.

 

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 Mr. 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 Mr. Chamnon.

 

Other arrested monks include Bangkok's ecclesiastical governor and his secretary.

 

Police seized computers, databases and smart phones as possible evidence from the monks' temples and residences.

 

"According to the police's Counter-Corruption Division, more than 340 million baht ($10 million) of state money has been lost in the temple fund embezzlement scandal following three rounds of investigation into temples across the country," the Bangkok Post reported.

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