, Bangkok, Thailand, Jul 20 – A Thai court charged a disgraced former monk Thursday with the rape of an underage girl, fraud and money laundering, after he was extradited from the United States.
Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation with around 300,000 men in orange robes, but the clergy are beset by high-profile scandals.
Wiraphon Sukphon, 37, was arrested on arrival at Bangkok’s main airport late Wednesday from the US where he established an unofficial Buddhist teaching centre after fleeing Thailand in 2013.
He faces a total of five charges, including raping a minor under 15 years old, which carries a jail term of up to 20 years.
“The Criminal Court has accepted to hear the case against Wiraphon,” Worranan Srilum, a spokesman for the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) police unit, told AFP.
“The defendant did not apply for bail.”
Wiraphon seized headlines in 2013 when footage emerged of him with two other monks on a private jet wearing sunglasses and wielding Louis Vuitton designer bags — earning him the tabloid moniker the ‘jet-set monk’.
– Sex, drugs and murder –
A subsequent probe seized $770,000 of his assets, including a Porsche and a Mercedes Benz car, and 41 bank accounts.
He fathered a child with the girl he raped.
The scandal-mired cleric went by the name Luang Pu Nen Kham to back-up claims he was the reincarnation of a famous miracle-performing monk.
His temple in the rural town of Buriram disrobed him after the allegations surfaced and he fled the kingdom.
But continued to act as a monk, establishing a Buddhist centre in California.
In May a US court ordered his extradition after a request from Thai authorities.
Buddhism is weaved closely into the social fabric of Thailand.
All Thai men are expected by social convention to spend some time in orange robes.
It is a stint aimed at bestowing discipline, religious knowledge and good karma on the monk and his family.
Yet the clergy is dogged by negative publicity, with recent extortion, sex, drugs, gambling and murder scandals involving monks shocking the Thai public.
Buddhist authorities want to clean-up the image of the clergy and keep a tighter check on temple finances.
Last week the Thai junta trailed the idea of “smart ID cards” for each monk to record any criminal history and prevent people using orange robes for personal benefit.
The junta is also engaged in a long-running feud with the Dhammakaya temple — a rich and powerful Buddhist sect whose give-to-receive narrative draws the allegiance of many wealthy Thai families.
In March this year the junta was left red-faced after it was forced to call off a weeks-long hunt for the sect’s former abbot at the 1,000-acre temple site on Bangkok’s outskirts.
The septuagenarian abbot, who is accused of embezzling $33 million, evaded arrest despite a search of the temple by hundreds of security forces.