05/31/2018, 17.31
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Thai junta’s clean-up job among Buddhist monks

Some 45 Buddhist temples are being investigated for financial improprieties. About a dozen monks forced to leave their monasteries are now in prison. In an unprecedented move, three members of the Supreme Council are also behind bars, as are some government officials. Never before has a Thai government tried to clean up the Sangha as current one has done in the past few weeks.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/ÉdA) – An unprecedented crackdown has been taking place since early May against Thailand high-ranking Buddhist monks, with many arrested on charges of embezzlement.

The country’s ruling junta appears to be bent on cleaning up monasteries whose credibility in the eyes of the faithful has been eroded by years of scandal.

Indeed, never before has a Thai government tried to wiped the slate clean in the Sangha, the country's Buddhist religious community of 300,000 monks in 37,000 temples.

So far, 45 monasteries have seen arrests. A dozen monks forced to leave their community are now in prison.

Dozens of officials in the National Buddhist Bureau, the government agency responsible for running the Sangha, have been caught up in the scandal, with misappropriated money running in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Three members of the 20-member Sangha Supreme Council, the highest religious authority in the kingdom, are also involved. Never in Thai history has a member of the council been arrested. Now two are already in prison and a third one was arrested yesterday, after absconding for six days.

Three nationally important temples with royal patronage have come under investigation, including the famous Golden Mountain Temple or Wat Saket in Bangkok.

The financial irregularities touch US$ 130 million in public funds given to monasteries to maintain existing facilities and build new ones, develop religious education, promote Buddhism and pay the salaries of some 40,000 monks employed in the administration of monasteries.

The main focus of the inquiry into misappropriation is centred on the National Buddhist Bureau (NBB). The scheme was simple. The NBB sent money to the abbots in charge of the various temples. The latter, instead of using the money for various construction or educational purposes, deposited it in the personal accounts of NBB officials.

This went on for many years, but the new head of the NBB, Lieutenant Colonel of Police Pongporn Pramsaneh now wants to put an end to it.

By and large, most Thais back the police in its attempt see how funds were managed. At US$ 3.7 billion, personal donations to the temples far outstrip public funds.

However, under the Sangha Act, which regulates monasteries, abbots administer donations as they see fit. In principle, the abbots should set up a management committee and file annual financial reports to the NBB.

In reality, committee members are not necessarily picked on the basis of their abilities but rather on their ties to abbots. Furthermore, civil authorities are not allowed order independent audits and reports cannot be made public.

This lack of transparency has led some observers to demand that independent audits be systematically conducted on all financial transactions by Buddhist temples.

However, for the country's military leaders the clean-up operation is something delicate, since some believe that they do not have the moral authority (barami, in Thai) to intervene so thoroughly in monastic affairs.

In fact, the ruling generals are far from blameless themselves. Every time one of them is accused of corruption, the junta tens to sweep the case under the carpet without imposing any sanctions.

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