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Sex, Drugs, Murder & Money Dismay Thailand's Buddhists

Sex, Drugs, Murder & Money Dismay Thailand's Buddhists

By Richard S. Ehrlich | Bangkok, Thailand
July 15, 2013

Saffron-robed Buddhist monks' involvement in sex, drugs, murder and corruption is being increasingly exposed in Thailand, thanks to YouTube, resulting in shock, dismay, condemnation and criminal investigations.

Recent YouTube videos show Buddhist monks performing acts which disgust pious believers, puncturing the image of shaven-headed clergymen dwelling in a spiritual realm free from materialistic, hedonistic and evil desires.

The latest scandals are not what Buddhist-majority Thailand's more than 60 million devotees want to think about when they take off their shoes, enter a temple, humbly kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground in front of a statue of the Buddha.

Thailand's 200,000 monks traditionally must obey the Vinaya which lists 227 monastic rules prescribed by the Buddha more than 2,500 years ago.

These rules tell monks how to interact with people and forbid killing, stealing, sex, major financial transactions, intoxication, politics and other activities, and describe the correct use of food, utensils, robes and temple property.

Inappropriate behavior, however, appears to be spreading among Thailand's Buddhist monks who often enjoy living in ornate, modern, multi-million-dollar temple complexes built from donations.

To smooth the cash flow, many temples include brightly-lit banking ATM machines installed on temple property for devotees to use, next to statues and prayer halls.

Despite the seemingly endless news about monks occasionally committing crimes, Thais usually consider the cases to be abuses by individuals.

A recent YouTube video showing monks on a plush private jet purportedly taking off from Thailand to France, however, resulted in a criminal case by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Thailand's version of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The video shows a few robed monks in comfy jet seats next to their leader -- a Buddhist abbot popularly known as Luang Pu Nen Kham, whose real name is Wirapol Sukphol.

Mr. Wirapol is wearing yellow sunglasses while sitting next to what appears to be a designer bag.

That blatant display of jet-set wealth proved too much for many Thais.

Thailand's media, officials and public immediately voiced outrage about the video, lamenting how far the idealistic, atheist teachings of the Buddha have degenerated in this Southeast Asian nation, while the scandal rapidly escalated.

The DSI spent Monday (July 15) scrutinizing allegations that Mr. Wirapol had sex with a 14-year-old girl a decade ago, and want to conduct DNA tests.

An animated satirical video also appeared, mocking Mr. Wirapol and included imagined scenes of a robed monk committing various sins, such as enjoying Bangkok's infamous ping-pong sex show.

Surprisingly, at least one of Thailand's tightly government-controlled television stations broadcast the satirical video without censoring the animated bikini-clad dancer's erotic behavior.

"I have been wondering for three years why the monk has such large amounts of money and assets," said Bangkok Aviation Center's founder and CEO, Piya Tregalnon.

He posted details on his Facebook page about Mr. Wirapol renting the center's private planes to travel between Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani which is near his monastery in eastern Thailand.

"I think his wealth is suspicious," Mr. Piya said, confirming the Facebook posts, according to the Bangkok Post.

The monk allegedly paid the equivalent of $10,000 for each rented plane, said Mr. Piya who was also an air force wing commander.

The DSI meanwhile reportedly said a former aide to the monk told them that Mr. Wirapol cavorted with other girls, drank alcohol, and took illegal drugs.

The partying occurred inside a garage at the former aide's car repair shop in Ubon Ratchathani, where the monk brought his luxury vehicles to be fixed, the DSI's Security Crime Bureau chief, Police Lt. Col. Pong-in Intarakhao, said.

During the current investigation, Crime Suppression Division officers attempted to search the monk's monastery for more evidence.

The government's Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) recently announced that the monk and his associates were allegedly linked to bank accounts totaling millions of dollars.

"I want to warn Luang Pu Nen Kham's network, and Luang Pu himself, not to move assets shown in the bank accounts because doing so will immediately fall into the category of money laundering," said AMLO Deputy Chief Suwanee Sawaengphol.

"If the money has been used to buy cars or an airplane, such assets will be illegal too, according to money laundering law, and they will be confiscated," she said.

"Even though Luang Pu can claim that the money has been voluntarily donated by members of the public, if the money was obtained by exploitation of people's faith through fraud and scams, they are also illegal under the money laundering law," said Ms. Suwanee who is also a police captain.

The monk's defenders said photos of him with women were fake, and any expensive items he may have used had been donated to him, not illegally purchased.

"We will find evidence to counter all the groundless accusations," a supporter, Sukhum Wongprasit, told parliament.

Mr. Wirapol, born in 1979, was ordained as a novice when he was 15 years old.

His base in eastern Thailand's Sisaket is registered as a monastery instead of as a temple, which may allow legal loopholes in its financial status, an official said.

The flying monk reportedly departed France and is currently in California where he allegedly owns a house.

Thailand's media and public meanwhile is expressing disapproval about an unrelated scandal involving another Buddhist monk.

A recently uploaded YouTube video shows Tee Perd Yanthep coaxing two nervously smiling women to repeat gibberish, which the monk says is a "language of the deity that stays with people in every incarnation".

The two women struggle to mumble his mumbo-jumbo, while the monk instructs them at a temple.

Police are also investigating other allegations of monks gone bad.

Near Krabi, a southern beach town, police said on June 28 they found the strangled corpse of a senior monk whose hands and feet were bound.

His iPad and mobile phone had not been stolen, perhaps because of his involvement in a profitable spiritual amulet business, police told reporters.

In Bangkok, an actor accused of murdering the owner of an upscale bar in January did what many alleged criminals do -- he suddenly became a temporary monk before prosecutors filed their case against him in mid-June.

Some criminals permanently dodge justice by hiding in temples as monks under a pseudonym.

If discovered, they often join another temple, using a different name.

Also in June, villagers in northeast Thailand alleged that a senior monk inappropriately touched a 13-year-old novice.

Not far away, in a separate case, police arrested a 41-year-old Buddhist abbot for allegedly consuming illegal methamphetamines and possessing pornography in his temple.

*************

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:
http://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com
http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists/sets
https://gumroad.com/l/RHwa

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