Scandal of the jet-setting monk rivets Thailand

AP, BANGKOK

Mon, Jul 22, 2013 - Page 5

He is known as Thailand’s jet-setting fugitive monk, and his story has riveted the country with daily headlines of lavish excess, promiscuity and alleged crimes including statutory rape and manslaughter.

Until a month ago, 33-year old Wirapol Sukphol was relatively unknown in Thailand. Now he is at the center of the biggest religious scandal the country has seen in years.

His excesses first came to light last month with a YouTube video that went viral. It showed the monk in aviator sunglasses taking a private jet ride with a Louis Vuitton carry-on.

The video sparked criticism of his un-monkly behavior and a stream of humorous headlines like, “Now boarding, Air Nirvana.”

Since then, a long list of darker secrets has emerged — including his accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht (US$32 million). Last week, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Wirapol after having him defrocked in absentia.

He was in France when the scandal surfaced after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. Wirapol is believed to have then fled to the US, but his current whereabouts are unknown.

The arrest warrant implicates him on three charges: statutory rape, embezzlement and online fraud to seek donations. He is also under investigation for money laundering, drug trafficking and manslaughter.

“Over the years there have been several cases of men who abused the robe, but never has a monk been implicated in so many crimes,” said Pong-in Intarakhao, the case’s chief investigator for the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI. “We have never seen a case this widespread, where a monk has caused so much damage to so many people and to Thai society.”

Born in the poor northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, he entered the monkhood as a teenager and gained local renown for claims of supernatural powers.

Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help fund expensive projects in the name of Buddhism.

Thailand’s Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to the ex-monk. Several of the accounts kept about 200 million baht in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering.

Investigators also suspect that Wirapol killed a man in a hit-and-run accident three years ago.

Critics say Wirapol is an extreme example of a wider crisis in Buddhism, which has become marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society.

However, the case of Wirapol has also shown the benefits of social media, says Songkran Artchariyasarp, a lawyer and Buddhist activist.

“Buddhists all around the world can learn from this case,” said Songkran, who heads a Facebook group that collects tips about wayward monks. Photographs uploaded to his page helped launch the investigation into Wirapol.

“Let this be a case study that shows if a monk does something wrong, it’s harder to get away with it — especially in the era of social media,” Songkran said.

However, it remains stunning how much Wirapol did get away with. During a shopping spree from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes worth 95 million baht, according to the DSI.

Luxury travel for the monk included helicopters and private jets.

“I always wondered what kind of monk has this much money,” one of his regular pilots, Piya Tregalnon, said.

Dozens of pictures have been posted in online forums showing Wirapol’s high-flying lifestyle — riding a camel at the pyramids in Egypt, sitting in a cockpit at the Cessna Aircraft factory in Kansas.

Even more incriminating were accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women — a cardinal sin for monks. Among them was a 14-year-old girl with whom he allegedly had a son, a decade ago. The mother filed a statutory rape case against him last week.

Police have yet to determine how many people he swindled, but the trail of disappointed followers is long.

One of them is a Bangkok housecleaner who remembers first hearing him preach a year ago.

“His voice was beautiful, it was mesmerizing. He captivated all of us with his words,” said Onsa Yubram, 42.

When he ended his sermon and held out his saffron bag, hundreds of people rushed forward with donations.

“His bag was so full of cash, they had to transfer the money into a big fertilizer sack. He told us, ‘Don’t worry, no need to rush. I’ll stay here until the last of you gets to donate,’” she said.