Missing novice buried under Buddha statue at temple

Monks and laymen witness the removal of a Buddha statue and cement paving in the compound of Wat Thawang Tawan Tok in Nakhon Si Thammarat’s Muang district, where the body of a 17-year-old novice was found on Friday. (Photo by Nujaree Raekrun)

NAKHON SI THAMMARAT – A novice who disappeared from a temple five months ago was found on Friday, his body buried under the base of a Buddha statue in the grounds by a monk who allegedly confessed to having killed him.

The body of novice Pluem, 17, was revealed after a backhoe was used to remove a cement block supporting a Buddha statue near a Takhian tree at Wat Thawang Tawan Tok in Muang district on Friday.  

The body was dressed in a sports T-shirt and short pants and had been buried more than a metre deep, and the hole filled with layers of cement and quicklime to conceal the smell.

Two suspects were arrested – Denchai Phumniyom, 36, formerly Phra Denchai or Phra Den of Wat Thawang Tawan Tok and who was defrocked after his arrest on Thursday, and an accomplice, Suriya Kusolsuk, 18, formerly novice Suriya. They were  taken back to the temple for a crime re-enactment on Friday.

Three others were also arrested: Piyachat Arunsakul, 40, who was Mr Denchai’s girlfriend, along with  a novice and a layman, said Pol Lt Gen Thesa Sriwatho, chief of Provincial Police Region 8  during a media briefing on Friday.

Denchai Phumniyom, 36,  formerly Phra Denchai or Phra Den of Wat Thawang Tawan Tok and his alleged accomplice Suriya Kusolsuk, 18, formerly a temple novice, at a media briefing on Friday. (Photo by Nuraree Raekrun)

Ms Piyachat denied any involvement, while the other two suspects were treated as police witnesses, said Pol Lt Gen Thesa.

During interrogation, Mr Denchai allegedly confessed to having killed the novice during a quarrel over missing temple money. 

Before the murder, Denchai and Suriya took Pluem to the temple’s office, where he was beaten senseless with PVC piping. His unconscious body was loaded on a pickup truck to be taken to another temple in Lan Saka district.

On the way, they realised he was dead. The boy’s body was placed in a plastic container and taken back to Wat Thawang Tawan Tok, where they dug a hole and buried him. The area was later paved with cement to prevent anyone accidentally finding the body.

Mr Denchai, who had not entered the monkhood at the time, placed a Buddha statue on top of it. He later ordained as a monk on Jan 26 to redeem his guilt.

Mr Denchai said he felt remorse for his actions. He decided to enter the monkhood and placed the Buddha statue on top of the grave so others would pay respect to the slain novice.

Pol Lt Gen Thesa said it was believed more than five people were involved, maybe 10 people. It was a shocking case because it occurred inside a temple.

The disinterred body would be sent to Surat Thani forensic institute for examination.

Pol Lt Gen Thesa said the murder occurred around early January this year. A missing person report was only recently filed with police, about five months after the novice vanished.

Pluem had been wearing a saffron robe when he was assaulted. After he died someone changed his clothes.

Mr Denchai and Ms Piyachat had been present during the fatal assault, and others later joined them, according to the commander of Provincial Police Region 8.

They were the two key suspects. They were in charge of all business at the temple. There was no temple committee.

A relative of the slain novice, Phra Khru Baideeka Sarawut Wachiraya of Wat Wang Sai in Lan Saka district, said Pluem had phoned the abbot of Wat Wang Sai early this year and said he had been accused of stealing money from Mr Denchai.

The abbot told the novice to return the money if he stole it, but Pluem, insisted he had not. Soon afterwards, he vanished.

Wat Thawang Wang Tawan Tok is a popular temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat province and more than 100 vehicles can be seen parked there on week days. This rises to about 300 on weekends. The parking charge was 30 baht per vehicle, with then-Phra Denchai and a close female discipline managing the money.

There were reports the arrested monk wielded much influence at the temple. Any monk or novice who had a conflict with Phra Denchai and his associates would have trouble remaining at the temple.

The Buddha statue on top of the grave where the body of the dead novice was concealed, before it was dug up. (Photo by Nuraree Raekrun)

Rescue workers unearth the body of the missing novice buried under cement and a Buddha statue at Wat Thawang Tawan Tok in Nakhon Si Thammarat. (Photo by Nujaree Raekrun)

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