THAILAND has ordered the arrest of Buddhist monk, Wirapol Sukpho, on charges of statutory rape, embezzlement and online fraud.
The 33-year-old fled after a video posted on YouTube in June – showing him in aviator sunglasses on a private jet trip, complete with Louis Vuitton bag – went viral.
A subsequent investigation revealed he had assets worth 1 billion baht (£21 million) despite his vows to live a life of celibacy and simplicity. Wirapol was in France when the scandal broke after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. He is believed to have then fled to America. His current whereabouts are unknown.
He has since been defrocked and is also under investigation for money laundering, drug trafficking and manslaughter for a hit-and-run accident. Authorities are trying to work 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, chief investigator. “We have never seen a case where a monk has caused so much damage to Thai society.”
Born in the poor north-east province of Ubon Ratchathani, Wirapol entered the monastery as a teenager and gained 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 title normally reserved for elder monks.
Gradually, he cultivated wealthy followers to help fund expensive projects – building temples, hospitals and a 36ft-high Emerald Buddha at his temple in the north-east, touted as solid jade but made of tinted concrete.
Thailand’s Anti-Money Laundering Office has discovered 41 bank accounts linked to Wirapol. Several of the accounts kept about 200m baht (£4.2m) in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering.
Investigators also suspect that Wirapol killed a man in a hit-and-run accident while driving late at night three years ago.
Between 2009 and 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes worth 95m baht (£2m), say investigators. They were among 70 vehicles he purchased. Some he gave to senior monks, others he sold as part of a suspected black market car business to launder his money, Mr Pong-in said.
Luxury travel for the monk included helicopters and private jets for trips between the north-east and Bangkok.
“I always wondered what kind of monk has this much money,” said one of his pilots, Piya Tregalnon. Each domestic roundtrip cost about 300,000 baht (£6,500) and the monk always paid in cash, he said.
“The most bizarre thing is what was in his bag,” Mr Piya said, referring to the monk’s cloth shoulder sack. “It was filled with stacks of 100 dollar bills.”
Police have yet to determine how many people he swindled, but one of them is a Bangkok cleaner who remembers first hearing him preach a year ago.
“His voice was beautiful, it was mesmerising. He captivated all of us,” recalled Onsa Yubram, 42. When he ended his sermon and held out his saffron bag, hundreds rushed forward with donations. “His bag was so full of cash, they had to transfer the money into a big fertiliser sack. He told us, ‘Don’t worry, no need to rush. I’ll stay until the last of you gets to donate.’”