7 Buddhist monks accused of embezzling more than $5.3 million donated to temple in Thailand

In this handout photo released by Thai police Central Investigation Bureau and taken Wednesday, May 10, 2023, Thai police display gold and other jewelry they discovered in a raid on a Buddhist temple at police station in Nakhon Ratchasima, northeast of Thailand. (Thai police Central Investigation Bureau via AP)

Seven Buddhist monks are among nine suspects who are being held in pretrial detention after being arrested for allegedly embezzling assets worth about 300 million baht ($8.9 million) from donations received by a temple in Thailand’s northeast, authorities said Thursday.

The Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases said the actions of the ringleaders in the case “gravely undermined Buddhism.”

Five monks and a driver were sent to pretrial detention on Thursday, according to a statement from the court in Bangkok. They were arrested at Wat Pa Thammakhiri in Nakhon Ratchasima province when police conducted a raid Tuesday and uncovered property worth about 100 million baht ($2.9 million) allegedly hidden by the suspects.

Cash, jewelry and amulets were found in many spots, including the monks’ private quarters, police said. Some items were buried underground.

The first arrests in the case occurred last Friday, when police took into custody the temple abbot and a famous monk, Kom Kongkaew, who were accused of stealing over 180 million baht ($5.3 million) of the temple’s money.

Kom, his sister, and the abbot were denied bail Monday. The court said that after he was taken into custody, Kom instructed the six suspects arrested this week to hide the valuables that were discovered by police. The court deemed all nine to be flight risks who might tamper with evidence.

Police said the abbot, Wutthima Thaomor, told them that Kom advised the monks to use some of the stolen funds to purchase jewelry.

The abbot, along with Kom and his sister, are accused of taking the donation money by withdrawing cash from the temple’s bank account and handing it over to be deposited in the sister’s bank account, in which police discovered 130 million baht ($3.8 million). Another 51 million baht ($1.5 million) in cash was found at her home.

Some Buddhist temples in Thailand are extremely wealthy because their followers donate large amounts as a way of making religious merit.