By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
A court in Thailand sentenced a senior Buddhist monk to 26 years in prison Thursday after finding him guilty of money laundering when he and another monk embezzled almost U.S. $1 million of government funds that they claimed were earmarked for temples in the Deep South.
The conviction took place eight months after another court ordered a former jet-setting member of Thailand’s Buddhist clergy to serve 114 years in prison for fraud, money laundering and computer crimes.
Monk Kitti Patcharakun, 55, the former abbot of Lad Kae Temple in northern Petchaboon province, arrived at the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases in Bangkok on Thursday, but was defrocked and sent to a remand house in the Thai capital after being sentenced, pending an appeal.
“The defendant was found guilty of violation of the 1999 Anti-Money Laundering Act on 13 counts,” according to court documents. “He is sentenced to three years for each count, but the jail term is reduced to 26 years because the defendant cooperated during hearings.”
Kitti (alias Somkiat Khanthong) did not talk to the media but his lawyer told reporters he had requested bail and would file an appeal.
Prosecutors said Kitti and the former director of the National Buddhism Office (NBO), Nopparat Benjawatananan, siphoned off 28 million baht (U.S. $903,225) by collaborating and falsifying projects for 12 temples in four provinces.
The temples did not request funds from the Buddhist Office and received a minuscule amount, prosecutors alleged in the court documents.
Kitti and Nopparat claimed that the funds would be used for religious projects, including for temples in the Deep South, prosecutors said.
The court indicted Kitti in February last year but Nopparat fled the country during the investigation process.
Thailand has more than 61,000 monks and about 80 percent of the nation’s 69 million people are Buddhists, who generally make donations believing that offering alms to monks secures them good karma in this life and the next.
Last year, about 200 police commandos raided several temples in Bangkok, arresting several monks accused of involvement in a scam in which millions of baht (dollars) of temple funds were allegedly embezzled.
At least six senior monks, a few civilians and other former NBO officials have been remanded for hearings.
In August last year, a court sentenced Wirapol Sukphol to 114 years in prison also for money laundering, among other charges.
Wirapol, 39, provoked outrage in 2013 when a YouTube video showed him wearing designer sunglasses in a private jet with a Louis Vuitton carry-on luggage by his side. As a result of the controversy, Wirapol was defrocked. He was also accused of raping an underage girl and allegedly had sexual relations with several women.
While Buddhist monks have taken vows of celibacy and promised to live modest lives, modernization has creeped in, eroding such principles, a worshipper told BenarNews.
“The problem is that materialism causes some monks and supporters to become materialists as opposed to true Buddhists,” said Kasana Lajarochana, an engineer and a Buddhist devotee. “We need harsher punishment and efficient enforcement to deter bad people.”