The former director of Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism (NOB) has been sentenced to a 94-year prison term for repeatedly embezzling funds meant for several temples within the Southeast Asian kingdom. Sixty-four-year-old Phanom Sornsipl was first arrested in 2018 for the alleged misallocation of funds intended for Buddhist temples in 2013 and 2014.
The previous sentence of 52 years and eight months for Sornsipl was increased on Tuesday by the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases. He, along with several co-defendants, was also ordered to return the embezzled funds to the Buddhism office.
In 2017, following an investigation by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), Sornsipl was accused of stealing more than 300 million baht (US$9.42 million) in state subsidies meant for some 30 Buddhist temples, while he headed the NOB.
In a series of schemes involving different temples, officials from the National Office of Buddhism offered generous funds for temples to cover the cost of renovations and repairs, Dhamma study courses, and religious festivals and other promotions. They did so while explicitly instructing those temples to return the majority of the funds under the table, which were then kept by the officials.
“During their terms at the helm of the NOB, some temples were asked to ‘return’ most of the state subsidies disbursed to them,” Prime Minister’s Office Minister Omsin Chiwaphruek said in 2017. (The Nation Thailand)
Several of the suspects at the time worked for the National Office of Buddhism, while others were monks affiliated with temples. Other defendants named in this week’s sentencing include former Buddhism study director of Lampang Province Boonlert Sopha, 57; former Buddhism promotion director, Patana Su-ammatmontri, 53; Kaeo Chittakob, 54, a former Buddhism studies specialist; and Pornpen Kittitarangkun, 51, another former Buddhism studies specialist.
Their jail terms varied from 6–56 years in length. All defendants continue to assert their innocence and all have remained in jail since their arrest in 2018.
In the same year, a number of high ranking monastics were also arrested. On 24 May, police raided four Buddhist temples and filed arrests for seven prominent religious leaders, who were accused of embezzling state funds. One of these was a member of the monastic-governing Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) and two monks from Bangkok’s Golden Mount Temple.
The National Office of Buddhism is a major government agency in Thailand, reporting directly to the prime minister. The office is responsible for the state oversight of Buddhism, the kingdom’s largest religion, with approximately 95 per cent of Thais as adherents. In 2017, Sornsipl was replaced in his role at the NOB by Pongporn Pramsaneh, a former policeman who vowed reforms within the office and in the financial accounting of temples across Thailand. The move led to outcry among some senior Buddhists, who called for his ouster. He was briefly fired, but returned to the post after less than a month and remains there today.