Dead tigers, stashed wealth cast spotlight on Thai monks

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The contents of the freezer at the Tiger Temple were gruesome: 40 dead tiger babies. At another temple, a police raid seeking to arrest a popular abbot accused of accepting $40 million in embezzled money was thwarted live on TV. Day by day, Thailand has followed details of gripping temple scandals that many say are shocking but not entirely surprising.

The abbot at Wat Dhammakaya, a monastery north of Bangkok where Thursday's raid took place, has been charged with money laundering and receiving stolen property.

Police entered the temple at 5 a.m. and left nine hours later empty-handed after failing to arrest the abbot, Phra Dhammachayo. The dramatic operation was broadcast throughout the day, as thousands of followers flooded the grounds to protest the attempted arrest, leaving police unable to peacefully conduct their search.

The abbot has rejected police demands to report for questioning and barricaded himself inside his temple for over two months, ignoring three summonses and an arrest warrant. The temple, famed for its wealth and giant UFO-shaped golden stupa, says the 72-year-old abbot is too sick to meet with officers.

The scandals have cast a spotlight on misbehaving monks and given rise to reflection on the state of Buddhism in Thailand, where it is the national religion. There have been many cases of monks abusing their status over the years. But seldom have two such highly visible cases played out side by side on Thailand's front pages and ignited social media with daily doses of lurid details.

The National Office of Buddhism has been publicly unfazed by the scandals.

"This has happened for hundreds of years, for as long as I can remember. There will always be monks accused of doing bad things," said Somchai Surachatri, spokesman for the National Office of Buddhism, a publicly funded organization that promotes Buddhism in the country. "There are 200,000 monks. Some have lost their way. It's a normal thing."

The plot lines of the two scandals have unfolded like TV dramas.

There's the abbot who touted the shunning of worldly possessions but accepted millions pilfered from a credit union, driving it into insolvency.

Then, there's the Tiger Temple that proclaimed a mission of helping tigers — and charged tourists admission to take photos with the beasts and walk them on leashes — while allegedly funneling the animals to a wildlife trafficking network. In the past two weeks, authorities have seized 137 live adult tigers from the temple, while its abbot, Phra Wisutthi Sarathera, has claimed ignorance of any wrongdoing and has urged police to catch the culprits.

The Sangha, as the Buddhist monkhood is known, has come under repeated scrutiny for sex, drug and money scandals that have prompted calls for reform.

In recent years, monks have been charged with sexual misconduct with women, men and minors, while others have been caught with huge stashes of methamphetamine pills. In one case dubbed the "Jet-Setting Monk," temple donations were used to take trips on private jets and purchase luxury Louis Vuitton luggage.

Despite the frequent exposure of wayward monks, the clergy in general retains a revered position in Thailand. Monks in saffron robes make their rounds every morning, and people pay respects by placing food in their alms bowls. Seats are reserved for monks at airports and on public transportation.

Social media have played a role in exposing monks, and videos and photos showing illicit activity are regularly posted and shared. The reactions to the latest scandals in Thai chatrooms have been lively, ranging from indignant to disillusioned.

"The whole Sangha is rotten," said Mano Laohavanich, a member of the government-appointed Religious Reform Council. "The corruption is deeply rooted, and has been there for a long time. Now we see two examples, but there should be many more than just these two temples. Dhammakaya is not more corrupt than any other temple. It's just bigger."

Mano, a former monk and close aide of Phra Dhammachayo, the abbot of the Dhammakaya temple under investigation, left the monkhood a few years ago saying he was disillusioned with the cult-like temple and what critics call its pay-your-way-to-nirvana scheme. The temple has faced corruption allegations for years, which it steadfastly denied. Mano says he would like to see the reform committee draft legislation regulating the financial management of temples, but says they lack the teeth to implement it.

Laws governing the Sangha need approval from the country's revered Sangha Supreme Council, a group of 20 elderly monks who govern Thailand's 200,000 other monks. Earlier this year, the council's 90-year-old acting supreme patriarch defended himself against allegations of tax evasion and illegally acquiring a vintage Mercedes Benz worth $250,000. The monk, known as Somdet Chuang, claimed the car was a gift from a follower and was kept in a museum. The case is ongoing.

"Should we blame our monks?" Anchalee Kongrut, a columnist for the Bangkok Post newspaper wrote in a recent piece about the two temple scandals. "We must take some blame. Thais and the authorities always give the benefit of doubt to religion and monks, and that leaves them exempt from oversight and audit. We must stop deceiving ourselves."

Monks in Thailand have long occupied a unique position that places them above the justice system. According to Thai law, a monk cannot be arrested until after he has been defrocked. Disciplinary matters are often handled by the Supreme Sangha Council, outside of the criminal justice system.

Pattaporn Sirikanchana, a professor of Buddhist philosophy at Thammasat University in Bangkok, believes this double-standard in law has tainted the institution.

"We cannot differentiate between law for lay people, and laws for monasteries," said the professor, explaining that exempting monks from the law undermines their credibility rather than highlighting their holy position in society. She cites the revelations at the Tiger Temple as emblematic of the problem. She has suggested that perhaps the role of monks should be confined to spreading the teachings of the Buddha. "Making money from the bodies of dead animals is not the duty of monks; it's business."

Amid all the attention to the two scandals, another monk made headlines Monday after being stopped before dawn at a police checkpoint. In violation of many Sangha rules, the monk was driving a car, an uncorked wine bottle at his side, dressed in all-black layman's clothes with a Ferrari cap covering his shaved head, his orange robe stashed in a backseat bag. He was detained after failing a breath test for alcohol.

"Nowadays, are there still people surprised by this sort of news?" said a comment by the administrator of Drama Addict, a popular Facebook page that posts Thailand's most talked-about news. "We all feel so numb."


Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Jason Corben contributed to this story.