Friday, August 2, 2013

When monks go bad

Sex, drugs and money laundering: behind Thai Buddhism’s fall from grace


If an ordinary image is worth a thousand words, then this one deserves a tome: a Thai Buddhist monk, fully decked out in saffron robes, reclining on the plush leather seats of a luxury jet, gold-tinted aviator glasses framing the familiar shaved head, and a Louis Vuitton handbag in the seat next to him.

That image, pulled from a viral YouTube video last month, is no irreverent hip-hop artist pandering to Buddhist pop culture (and yes, there is such a thing). It is a real Buddhist monk acting really badly.

But the story of Luang Pu Nenkham, the 33-year-old monk in that Hobbesian frame, gets even more sordid. Over the past month, Thai authorities have uncovered a vast network of his disciples allegedly involved in everything from drug trafficking to money laundering. Under the cover of Buddhist simplicity, Nenkham has amassed nothing less than an empire.

The luxury cars—including a Ferarri and a Rolls-Royce—are only the tip of this golden pagoda. Nenkham’s alleged excesses read like a Silvio Berlusconi charge sheet: as much as US$1-billion in ill-gotten assets, including hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in 41 bank accounts, money in constant circulation (raising suspicions of money laundering), a fleet of Mercedes cars and villas scattered throughout Thailand. For years, he has been city-hopping around the world on luxury helicopters and jets with, according to one pilot, designer handbags stuffed with American dollars.
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