Raids involving up to 200 police commandos led to the arrests at Buddhist temples in Bangkok of five senior monks suspected of being part of a money laundering scheme, Thai government officials said Thursday.
Armed with warrants, police searched for seven monks in three different temples – Wat Sa Ket, Wat Sam Phraya, and Wat Samphanthawong – who were believed to be linked to a scam where millions of baht were illegally transferred from temple funds to outsiders.
Of the five arrested, three were members of the Sangha Supreme Council, the organization that governs Buddhist monks in the country, officials said.
In Theravada (conservative) Buddhism, monks are not supposed to touch money. Despite this ban, police said they froze 132 million baht ($4.13 million) in the personal bank account of an abbot at Sa Ket Temple who was not among the five taken into custody.
“We found the abbot was involved with embezzling money from two temple-related projects worth 69 million baht. Money was transferred to lay people outside,” police Maj. Gen. Maitree Chimcherd told reporters.
In addition, Buddha Isara, a well-known activist monk, was arrested for allegedly stealing weapons during street protests in 2013 and 2014 and for violating the country’s strict royal defamation law through the alleged unlicensed use of the royal emblem on a Buddhist image.
The suspects who were arrested did not respond to questions from reporters as they were led into criminal court. The court stripped them of their positions as monks so they could be sent to jail and then denied bail.
Suwapan Tanyuwattana, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office who oversees the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), told reporters that police were only doing their jobs in arresting and processing the monks.
“In order to take legal action, we have to be concerned about Sangha law and Sangha discipline,” he said. “Everything has regulations and procedures.”
Thursday’s raids were the latest launched by the military-led government in its efforts to clean up corruption among the clergy of Thailand’s dominant religion. In Thailand, about 95 percent of its 69 million people practice Buddhism led by nearly 300,000 monks in 41,000 temples nationwide.
In March 2017, authorities ended a 23-day siege at the nation’s largest temple, Wat Dhammakaya, after they were unable to capture its founding monk on money-laundering and other charges despite deploying hundreds of police and soldiers to hunt him down.
A former official of a Buddhism reform panel group said the arrests were a good start to ridding Buddhism of criminal elements.
“Senior monks involved with temple-fund fraud will surely impact people’s faith toward Buddhism. This is going to bring a huge change to Thailand’s religious composition,” said Paiboon Nititawan, a former member of National Reform Council’s panel on Buddhism reform.
“We should amend Sangha law to prevent monks from being involved with money and temple finances. An accountant should be able to examine temple accounts,” he said.