Temple corruption erodes public faith

Thanthip Srisuwannaket

 As corruption soars in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, its temples are also facing a serious erosion of public faith due to rife corruption in the closed, nontransparent clergy.

Thailand’s latest ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) in 2020 continues to sink despite the government’s promise to get tough on corruption.

Last year, Thailand miserably failed the test again, scoring only 30 out of 100. Of the 180 countries surveyed, Thailand ranked 104th, falling three places from 2019.

Meanwhile, temple corruption continues to hit the headlines. Each scandal exposes the legal loopholes and systemic laxity that demand urgent intervention to salvage public faith.

The biggest temple corruption scandal in the past few years is undeniably what was dubbed Khadi Ngoen Thon Wat  in Thai, meaning the “change” returned by temples. The fraud involved the highest authority in the National Office of Buddhism (NOB), highranking monks in the Ecclesiastic Council, and several prestigious temples across the country.

The corruption scheme began before 2015 when a group of NOB officials approached abbots in various provinces, promising to give them special budgets for temple projects on the condition that they must “return” a certain amount of money called “the change” from the approved budgets to the officials concerned.

Under the deals, the abbots had to send the NOB budget requests for temple restoration, monks’ education, and dissemination of Buddhism in line with NOB rules and regulations. When the project proposals were approved and the grants deposited in the temples’ bank account, the abbots had to return the “change” to the NOB officials as promised.

The fraud was exposed in June 2017 when an abbot in Phetchaburi province petitioned the Thai Police Anti-Corruption Division (ACD) and the State Audit Office (SAO) over irregularities in his temple budget request to build a new ubosot, or praying hall. According to the abbot, the NOB officials demanded 10 million baht from the budget, leaving the temple only one million for the ubosot’s construction.

The NOB under new leadership then collaborated with the Police Anti-Corruption Division and the State Audit Office to probe the fraud. They found evidence documenting gradt in the restoration schemes for 33 temples during 2012-2016 worth over 270 million baht.

While this national scandal exposed power abuse in the top echelons of religious affairs regulators and misappropriation of funds by senior monks, temple donation corruption is common across the country.

One of the biggest temple corruption scandals concerned a popular monk Luang Pu Nen Kham Chattiko in 2013. He announced a project to build a giant imitation of the Emerald Buddha image, solicited donations from the faithful, and used the money for his luxurious lifestyle.

It was found that his fund-raising project had not been approved by the Fine Arts Department and his monastery Wat Pah Khantitham was not even officially registered.

Also, the flashy monk teamed up with a company called Khantitham Kaona to solicit funds from the public to build a hospital in Roi Et province without consent from the Public Health Ministry.

He broadcast his fund-raising projects widely on TV, radio, and his own media channels. As part of the deception, he started the construction to convince the public that the projects were real but never finished them to continue the fund-raising activities. Meanwhile, he syphoned the donations to live a luxurious lifestyle and buy himself properties and fancy cars.

To prevent temple corruption, the loopholes that allow abuse of the state budget for religious affairs and the misuse of temple donations must be addressed.

At present, there are more than 41,000 temples scattered in all parts of Thailand. While they enjoy more than 3 billion baht in state support each year, each temple has its own many fund-raising activities all year round apart from money from donation boxes on their premises.

These many fund-raising activities pose a huge challenge for transparent temple financial management. Yet, the abbots have sole authority to manage temple money.

Even when the abbots do not bow to temptation, without professional skills and experience in accounting, they are prone to being deceived by ill-intentioned people to syphon temple money for personal gains.

True, the 1962 Sangha Bill requires each temple to conduct proper accounting, but it allows the abbots to keep the accounts in private at the temples to facilitate occasional auditing following the abbots’ requests for royal insignia, official appointment as “developed” temples, or to be used as evidence in the face of public complaints. Transparency and sharing information with the public are certainly not its goals.

In 1968, the ministerial rules under the Sangha Bill later required temples to send their reports on income and expenses to the provincial branches of the NOB every month. However, these reports on state subsidies and temple donations are not open to the public. Without external monitoring from the community and the public, temple finances remain non-transparent and open to abuse.

To prevent future fraud and to salvage public faith in Buddhist temples, a basic yet crucial measure is to ensure external auditing for transparency. Temples should hire outside professional agencies to record temple income and expenses in detail. This will lessen the abbots’ burden while professional accounting of temple money will reduce mismanagement and misuse.

Importantly, the reports should be open to the public. Apart from putting the financial reports on bulletin boards where the faithful and the local communities can see them, the professional accountants should send the financial reports to the provincial branch of the NOB every six months. These reports should also be published on the NOB website.

For temples which receive state subsidies for their Buddhism-related activities, the NOB should evaluate their project performance and rigorously examine their financial documents to ensure that the grants are not misappropriated.

If corruption corrodes religious faith, financial transparency is the cure. Use professional help for temple accounting and open the closed, top-down system to external auditing and monitoring. When this happens, restoring public trust and faith will be within arms’ reach.

Thanthip Srisuwannaket is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published: Bangkok Post Apr 28, 2021

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