Jet-setting fugitive monk at centre of religious scandal rivets Thailand
Fugitive Wirapol Sukphol is on the run accused of rape, fraud, manslaughter and money laundering - his assets totalled 1 billion baht
He's known as Thailand's jet-setting fugitive monk. 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, 33-year-old Wirapol Sukphol was relatively unknown in Thailand. Now he is at the centre of the biggest religious scandal the predominantly Buddhist country has seen in years.
Despite the 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 in a private jet with a Louis Vuitton carry-on.
The video sparked criticism of his un-monkly behaviour and 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 (HK$250 million). Last week authorities issued an arrest warrant for the disgraced monk after having him defrocked in absentia.
Wirapol was in France when the scandal surfaced after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. He is believed to have then fled to the United States but his current whereabouts are unknown.
The arrest warrant implicates him 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 case's chief investigator for the Department of Special Investigation, 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."
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 fund expensive projects in the name of Buddhism - building temples, hospitals and what was touted as the world's largest emerald Buddha. The 11-metre 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 ex-monk. Several of the accounts kept about 200 million baht in constant circulation, raising suspicion of money laundering.
Investigators suspect Wirapol killed a man in a hit-and-run accident while driving a Volvo late at night three years ago.
From 2009 to 2011, Wirapol bought 22 Mercedes worth 95 million baht. They were among 70 vehicles he purchased. Some he gave as gifts to senior monks, others he sold off as part of a suspected black market car business to launder money, Pong-in said.
Luxury travel for the monk included helicopters and private jets for trips between the northeast and Bangkok.
Even more incriminating were accusations of multiple sexual relationships with women - a cardinal 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. The mother filed a statutory rape case against him last week.