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Buddhist monk gone berserk

Nathan Oelker

Sukphol vowed to lead a life of contemplation like this monk, but is now accused of money laundering, manslaughter and statutory rape.

Daily headlines of general excess follow

Wirapol Sukphol, a Buddhist monk from Thailand, is currently in the middle of the biggest religious scandal that the country’s seen in years. The accusations include everything that opposes a life vowing celibacy and simplicity: promiscuity, lavish excess, and alleged crimes of statutory rape and manslaughter.

Starting with a viral YouTube video in June, which shows the orange-robed Sukphol boarding a private jet with aviator sunglasses and Louis Vuitton carry-on, the monk has been the subject of scrutiny and hilarious headlines such as, “Now boarding, Air Nirvana.”

But the current matters are not as humor-filled. Thai authorities have issued an arrest warrant implicating Sukphol on three charges including statutory rape, embezzlement and online fraud to seek donations. He is also under investigation for money laundering, drug trafficking and manslaughter for a hit-and-run accident while driving a Volvo late at night three years ago.

The disgraced monk has also been defrocked in absentia.

Sukphol’s accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million) are pushing authorities to decipher how he gathered so much cash. Thailand’s Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to the Sukphol, with several of the accounts keeping about 200 million baht ($6.4 million) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering.

There are ideas about where the money has gone though. During a spree from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes worth 95 million baht ($3.1 million) according to Thai authorities, and this group of 22 is only a fraction of the 70 vehicles he has purchased. Some have been gifted to senior monks, and others have been sold off in suspected black market deals used to launder money.

Luxury travel also includes helicopters and private jet trips between the northeast and Bangkok. According to Facebook comments by Piya Tregnalnon, one of Sukphol’s regular pilots, the monk always paid in cash for domestic roundtrips costing about 300,000 baht ($10,000) each.

More pictures have been posted online forums showing Sukphol riding a camel at the pyramids in Egypt and sitting in a cockpit at the Cessna Aircraft factory in Kansas. According to the investigation, Sukphol was interested in purchasing his own private jet.

More incriminating accusations consist of Sukphol’s multiple alleged relationships with women, acts that are cardinal sins for monks. The most serious was one with a 14-year-old girl a decade ago, which produced a son. The mother filed a statutory rape case against Sukphol two weeks ago.

Critics say Sukphol’s exploits are an extreme example of a wider problem in Buddhism, a faith marginalized by a shortage of monks in an increasingly secular society. The contemplative, simple lifestyle of monks offers few diversions for young Buddhists raised with the millennial pursuits of omnipresent technology and commerce. Cases of misconduct with monks in recent years have revolved around alcohol abuse or frolicking with women or men—all of which are forbidden—and last year, about 300 of Thailand’s 61,416 full-time monks were reprimanded and disrobed in several cases for violating vows, according to the Office of National Buddhism.

“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, the Thai equivalent to the FBI. “We have never seem a case this widespread, where a monk has caused so much damage to so many people and to Thai society.”

For Sukphol’s escapades, investigators believe they have only scratched the surface. Sukphol was in France when the scandal came to light in June after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. Sukphol is suspected of fleeing to the United States but his current whereabouts are unknown.

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