The behaviour of a previously little-known Thailand monk has thrust the Sangha in Thailand onto the front pages of daily newspapers, with salacious claims of money laundering, an illegitimate child, and millions of baht in “laundered” money only serving to spice up the soap-opera-like story.
The scandal first began to emerge on June 17 when mainstream Thai media began taking notice of a video clip posted on YouTube almost a month earlier showing the abbott of Wat Pa Khantitham in Thailand’s northeastern Si Sa Ket province landing at Ubon Ratchathani International Airport aboard a private jet.
Sporting designer sunglasses, headphones, and what appeared to be a Louis Vuitton bag casually dumped on an adjoining seat, the video was rapidly shared on Thai social media channels.
Since reports first hit mainstream media the video has attracted more than 841,000 views, garnering 291 likes, 796 unlikes and salacious accusation after accusation that would put the country’s soap opera scriptwriters to shame.
The monk, identified as 34-year-old Phra Wirapol Sukphol – better known as Luang Pu Nenkham Chattigo, is reportedly in France and soon after the public outcry began announced that he was postponing his return to Thailand indefinitely.
In the weeks following the first disclosure an increasing number of accusations have been made.
Thailand’s Anti-Money Laundering Office (Amlo) has now frozen the bank accounts of the abbot and his close associates — reportedly containing more than Bt200 million (about US$6.4 mln) spread over 10 of 16 different bank accounts — following a complaint by a Facebook group calling itself the Facebook network against acts that destroy the nation, religion and the royal institution.
Misbehaving monks in Thailand not uncommon
In a country where the misbehaviour and defrocking of monks following reports such as “Monk: I do meth to lose weight“, “Monk took yaba to ease dog bite pain“, “Mad Monk Hacks Neck Of 75-Year-Old Temple Boy” and “Monk defrocked after Phuket drugs, women bender” barely raise an eyebrow, the actions of the abbott of Wat Pa Khantitham are rocking the Sangha in Thailand due to the sheer number of monastic principles transgressions.
Amongst the accusations levelled at Phra Wirapol Sukphol are that he:
- is rumoured to have a personal wealth of more than Bt1 billion ($32 mln).
- had up to Bt200 million ($6.4 mln) in constant circulation since 2010.
- solicited donations for the construction of a hospital and donations to build the world’s biggest Emerald Buddha replica without undertaking the work or gaining approval from the National Office of Buddhism (NOB).
- made a TV ad for an air purifier and urged buddhists to make merit by buying that particular brand and donating it to monks because “this one is the best”.
- Collected (according to him) more than 9,000kg of gold from his followers in the impoverished Kanthararom district of Si Saket as “clothes” for a giant Buddha image he had constructed.
- had intimate relationships with eight women – one of who he is said to have first approached when she was a grade 8 student, aged 14 and later fathered a child, now aged 11 with and perhaps several others.
- often travelled in a super luxury Maybach car and claimed to own a Mercedes-Benz S500, a BMW X6, and a Mini Cooper just for driving inside the temple compound.
- asked the founder and CEO of Bangkok Aviation Centre to purchase a private jet for him in the USA.
- drunk alcohol, took illegal drugs, watched pornographic videos, and had sex with many teenage girls.
Despite having received a string of complaints early on about the wayward monk, Thailand’s NOB, the organisation responsible for the Sangha in Thailand and its 61,000 or so monks, initially brushed aside the complaints, saying the monk’s actions were not a serious breach of monastic principles.
Public outcry and the daily tabloid-like media headlines in both the vernacular and English-language media, along with social media channels, has seen a monks committee established by the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) in Thailand, as well as the adoption of the matter as a special case by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI).
Corruption and nepotism claims plague Sangha probe
However, even this has drawn criticism and accusations of corruption and nepotism, with claims the monk had purchased luxury cars for at least two high-ranking monks in Ubon Ratchathani, one of whom had been appointed to the committee formed to investigate him.
It has been further claimed that last year he purchased passenger vans for the Highway Police and the Mahamakut Buddhist University (MBU).
After having failed to attend a meeting of the Sangha committee investigating the claims against him and with its investigation showing evidence of serious criminal offences having been committed, the DSI has said it will seek Phra Wirapol Sukphol’s extradition from France if he fails to report for questioning by the end of this month.
However, France is not one of the 15 countries that Thailand currently has a formal extradition treaty in place with. Subsequently any extradition proceedings would likely be protracted.
With a survey by the National Institute of Development and Administration (Nida) late last year finding that 65 per cent of the 1,174 people interviewed were aware of sexual misconduct, drug and alcohol abuse by monks, some are now questioning whether it is time that the Sangha in Thailand went through a total overhaul, the current structure of the clergy having been in place for almost 100 years.
Update July 19 2017: Wirapol Sukphol fled to the US in 2013 when the various charges were first levelled against him. He was arrested by US authorities in July 2016 and extradited back to Thailand in July 2017.
Update August 9 2018: Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok found Wirapol Sukphol guilty of multiple offences and sentenced him to a total of 114 years in prison comprising an 87-year term for public fraud, three years for crimes committed through a computer, and 24 years for money laundering. However, the court capped his maximum jail term at 20 years, as required under Section 91 of the Criminal Code for multiple offences.
Update October 17 2018: Ratchada Criminal Court on Wednesday, October 17 handed Wirapol Sukphol , 39, who is already serving a lengthy prison sentence, two eight-year prison terms — one for violating a minor under 15 and another for rape.
Update July 4 2019: Wirapol Sukphol has dropped his appeal against a 20-year prison sentence for fraud following his conviction for the repeated rape of an underage girl.
Feature video Al Jazeera English
An earlier version of this story was published in The Establishment Post, July 2013 as Sex, drugs & graft rock Sangha in Thailand
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
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