BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police raided four Buddhist temples on Thursday, arresting several prominent monks and worshippers in the year’s biggest such operation amid a crackdown on illegal financial dealings by temples.
The raids are the military government’s latest bid to reform Buddhism, which is followed by more than 90 percent of Thailand’s population of 69 million, but whose image has been tarnished by money and sex scandals involving monks.
“This is the investigation stage... it will all come down to facts and evidence,” police official Thitiraj Nhongharnpitak, of the Central Investigation Bureau, which is investigating the monks, told reporters.
More than 100 police commandos raided four temples in Bangkok, the capital, and the adjacent central province of Nakhon Pathom, in the early hours of Thursday.
Among those arrested was Phra Buddha Issara, 62, an activist monk who led street protests in 2014 and launched a campaign to clean up Buddhism, but gained enemies by publicly naming other religious leaders he accused of wrongdoing.
Buddha Issara was formally stripped of his position as a monk and sent to Bangkok remand prison to await trial on charges of robbery, forgery, and illegal detention of officials during the protests, his lawyer, Theerayuth Suwankaesorn, told Reuters.
Phra Phrom Dilok, 72, a member of the Sangha Supreme Council, which governs Buddhist monks in Thailand, was also arrested over alleged embezzlement of temple funds, police said.
Two other senior monks, Phra Sri Khunaporn and Phra Wichit Thammaporn, both assistant abbots of Bangkok’s Golden Mount temple, were also arrested over alleged embezzlement, they added.
Representatives of the three monks did not immediately respond to Reuters’ telephone calls to seek comment.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said the arrests were about getting to the bottom of the allegations.
“This is part of the investigation,” Prawit said.
Thailand’s temples, which earn billions of dollars every year from donations, have been embroiled in scandals ranging from murder, sex and drugs to shady financial dealings.
Under pressure from the junta, Thailand’s body of Buddhist monks has been trying to clean up its own act since last year, by enforcing tougher discipline for more than 300,000 monks.
The military took power in a 2014 coup it said was needed to restore order after months of anti-government protests, and has promised to hold elections next year, despite postponing the date several times.
Buddhist monks are highly respected in Thailand and taking action against them was historically considered taboo. But recent scandals have forced authorities to rethink how they handle allegations against Buddhist religious leaders.
Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, Panarat Thepgumpanat, and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Clarence Fernandez