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Thailand to charge Buddhist sect chief with money laundering

Posted November 23

— The head of a powerful Buddhist sect in Thailand will be indicted next week on charges of money laundering and related crimes involving millions of embezzled funds that allegedly reached the temple's coffers, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The Office of the Attorney-General announced its decision to bring to court Wat Dhammakaya abbot Phra Dhammachayo and four other people to be charged with conspiracy to launder money, money laundering and receiving stolen property.

The Dhammakaya sect is controversial because it is ostentatiously wealthy and politically influential. It is considered sympathetic to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is despised by the current military government. Some speculate the sect's legal problems result from its association with Thaksin.

The case involves 1.4 billion baht ($40 million) embezzled from a credit union. One of those scheduled to be arraigned in the money laundering case is the former chairman of the now-defunct Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative, who is already serving a 16-year prison term for embezzlement.

Three of the accused will be arraigned Nov. 30, but Dhammachayo and the fifth suspect are at large after evading arrest warrants earlier this year, so it is unclear if they will appear.

The Dhammakaya temple has repeatedly insisted on its abbot's innocence and said he was too sick to surrender for arrest. He is said to still live at the monastery.

At one point earlier this year, police besieged the temple north of Bangkok, but withdrew without trying to seize Dhammachayo after his monks and lay followers turned up en masse. Although the sect is controversial, the prospect of violence at a Buddhist temple would be troubling.

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