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Originally published Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 6:16 AM

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Former Thai monk lands at center of religious scandal

Wirapol Sukphol, a former Buddhist monk, is at the center of the biggest religious scandal Thailand has seen in years. Accused of amassing vast riches, embezzlement, fraud and statutory rape, he has disappeared and been defrocked in absentia.

The Associated Press

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BANGKOK — He’s 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 ranging from statutory rape to manslaughter.

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

Despite vows he took to lead a life of celibacy and simplicity, Wirapol had a taste for luxury, police say. His excesses came to light in June with a YouTube video that went viral. It showed the orange-robed monk in aviator sunglasses and a Louis Vuitton carry-on taking a private jet ride.

The video sparked criticism of his unmonkly behavior and a stream of humorous headlines such as, “Now boarding, Air Nirvana.”

Since then, a long list of darker secrets has emerged, including his accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million). Authorities issued an arrest warrant for the disgraced monk after having him defrocked in absentia.

Wirapol was in France when the scandal surfaced after he led a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. He is believed to have then fled to the United States, but his current location is unknown.

The arrest warrant implicates Wirapol 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.

Authorities are struggling to figure out how he amassed so much money.

“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 chief investigator on the case 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.”

Many bank accounts

Cases of monk misconduct in recent years have centered on alcohol use or cavorting with women or men, all forbidden. Last year, about 300 of Thailand’s 61,416 full-time monks were reprimanded and in several cases defrocked for violating their vows, according to the Office of National Buddhism.

In Wirapol’s case, investigators believe they have only scratched the surface.

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 such as the ability to fly, walk on water and talk to deities. He renamed himself Luang Pu Nen Kham, taking on a self-bestowed title normally reserved for elder monks.

Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help pay for expensive projects in the name of Buddhism: building temples, hospitals and what was touted as the world’s largest Emerald Buddha. The 36-foot-high Buddha was built at his temple in the northeast, touted as solid jade but made of tinted concrete.

Thailand’s Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to the former monk. Several accounts kept about 200 million baht ($6.4 million) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering.

Investigators also suspect Wirapol killed a man in a hit-and-run accident while driving a Volvo 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. The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to young Buddhists raised on shopping malls, smartphones and Internet.

But 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. Photos uploaded to his page helped launch the investigation of 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.”

But it remains stunning how much Wirapol did get away with. During shopping sprees from 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes vehicles worth 95 million baht ($3.1 million), according to the DSI.

The luxury cars were among 70 vehicles he has purchased. Some he gave as gifts to senior monks, others he sold as part of a suspected black-market vehicle business to launder his money, Pong-in said.

“I always wondered what kind of monk has this much money,” said one of his regular pilots, Piya Tregalnon. Each domestic round-trip cost about 300,000 baht ($10,000) and the monk always paid in cash, he said in comments posted on Facebook.

“The most bizarre thing is what was in his bag,” Piya said, referring to the typical monk’s humble cloth shoulder sack. “It was filled with stacks of 100-dollar bills.”

Even more incriminating were accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women, a sin for monks, who are not allowed to touch women. Among them was a 14-year-old girl with whom he allegedly had a son, a decade ago. A statutory-rape case in connection with that was filed against him recently.

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