A former head of Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism has seen his prison sentence increased to 94 years over charges of embezzling large sums of money earmarked for several Buddhist temples.
Phanom Sornsilp, 64, was slapped on May 19 with an additional sentence of 52 years and eight months by the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases after he had been found guilty of further cases of embezzlement that date back to 2014 and 2015.
In a previous ruling, the National Anti-Corruption Commission found that Phanom and another former head of the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) had embezzled the bulk of the funds allocated to prominent provincial temples with the help of accomplices.
In the latest ruling, Phanom and his accomplices have been found guilty of embezzling 50 million baht (US$1.6 million) from funds allocated by the Buddhism office to another three temples.
All the accused denied the charges in a scandal that dates back to 2017 when investigators first uncovered large-scale corruption under the aegis of the NOB.
During a raid on Phanom’s home in 2018, authorities found signs of what they called “unusual wealth.”
His family’s assets amounted to more than 216 million baht, including over 163 million baht held in 16 bank deposits, nine cars, gold bars, several plots of land, two houses and three apartments.
According to investigators, Phanom and several other senior officials engaged in a years-long kickback scheme whereby they allocated large sums of money as state subsidies to temples on condition that most of the money was then returned to them.
Senior monks could also benefit from the arrangement financially. As many as 30 temples were involved in the scheme, which led to the embezzlement of some 300 million baht, investigators said.
“During their terms at the helm of the NOB, some temples were asked to return most of the state subsidies disbursed to them,” Omsin Chiwaphruek, a senior government official, explained at the time. “It’s like if a temple gets 2 million baht for renovation, it’s told to return 1.3 million baht.”
Several senior Buddhist monks were found to have participated willingly in the scheme, which caused a scandal in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist nation where monks, especially senior clergymen, are widely revered.
In May 2018, three members of the Sangha Council were charged with fraud and money laundering after they had been found to have siphoned off state funds to private accounts.
By law monks in Thailand cannot be imprisoned, so the senior monks were stripped of their clerical status and titles so that they could be detained without bail and sentenced.
Over the years numerous prominent Buddhist monks and senior Buddhist officials have become embroiled in corruption scandals. Senior monks have been accused of embezzling either state funds or private donations to their temples, or both.
The venality of these Buddhist clergymen has tarnished the image of the Sangha, or community of monks, in the eyes of many believers in Thailand, according to observers.
“The reality is that these supposedly holy men may not be as holy as many would like to believe,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, a prominent journalist and commentator.
“This means the government and religious authorities will have to work harder to ensure that state funds for temples are not embezzled.”