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A screenshot of activist monk Loun Sovath’s Facebook account. Facebook
A screenshot of activist monk Loun Sovath’s Facebook account. Facebook

Activist monks turn to social media

Cambodia’s Buddhist monks have taken to social networks in a big way to drive their traditional role in activism and champion causes, overcoming a lack of support from religious authorities and some apprehension from politicians.

A new report in the peer-reviewed journal Conflict, Security, and Development, published by King's College London, takes a deep look at the way monks are using social media to expand their historic connection to activism, with Facebook emerging as the platform of choice for a new generation of net-savvy monks in a country where almost a third of the population is active on social media.

Social engagement among monks dates back to the organised movements against French colonisation. The 1942 Umbrella Revolution, an anti-colonial, nonviolent protest movement, was inspired by religious leaders who had a unique position as moral and spiritual arbiters, the report’s authors – Bunly Soeung and SungYong Lee – write.

Monks lost their prominent role during the wars and upheaval of the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge banned religion. It wasn’t until the 1990s that monks began to re-emerge as leaders of social movements for environmental protection, human rights and sustainable development, among other issues.

Today, some monks have taken on leadership roles within these movements. But they have simultaneously been deprived of institutional backing and resources, and in some cases actively persecuted and threatened. This scenario has forced monks to seek out other forms of social capital, including social media tools.

“Although these monks have few institutional resources as most have been ostracized by the central religious authorities,” the report’s authors write, “they have managed to maintain or strengthen their normative legitimacy based on their religious authority, cultural knowledge, social networks and new media technology.”

Nevertheless, socially active monks face pushback from religious institutions due to the government’s influence on religious leaders, the authors note.

Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Prime Minister Hun Sen took an active role in appointing monks and forming the country’s monastic structure, leaving many spiritual leaders beholden.

“The Hun Sen government, which had consolidated its power through the military coup in 1997, banned Buddhist monks from political participation (including casting votes in elections), and violently repressed open protests, disassembled many Buddhist groups, and censored public sermons,” the authors write.

Socially active monks have been denounced, threatened and detained, and many monasteries experience surveillance, the authors write. In 2014, a senior monk involved in the anti-Vietnam Kampuchea Krom movement was stabbed to death in Phnom Penh. A young monk was detained for the crime, but many suspected the attack had been coordinated with others.

Representatives of the Ministry of Cult and Religion declined to comment.

Despite threats, some activists have managed to use social media to promote causes and maintain legitimacy in the public eye. Members of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, including the well-known environmental activist But Buntenh, have significant social media followings.

Monks Loun Sovath and Bun Saleth have also taken leading roles in movements for land rights and against deforestation.

“Having learnt the importance of the internet as a medium, a few monks respond proactively to interview requests from foreign media and then post the interviews on their Facebook or YouTube pages,” the authors note in the report.

Sovath’s blog, which calls for social and engaged Buddhism, contains dozens of YouTube videos of him talking about women’s rights and housing for low-income families.

According to Rath Sovann, a monk who works in environmental movements, social media allows religious leaders to reach out to audiences directly.

“Cambodian monks who work in activism have always had a lot of problems, but they have a moral responsibility to explain to people their role in society,” Sovann said. “I am happy because we can explain to young people the importance of social engagement, and we use You Tube and Facebook.”

Still, these online media can also leave monks vulnerable to harassment. Last week, Sovath’s Facebook page was hacked and covered in sexually explicit images. “The venerable priest lacks morals,” one message reads.

The monk responded by launching a new page with a banner reading “We are Human Rights Defenders.” The first post on the new page is a picture of Sovath.

“No Dogs Hack My Facebook,” the caption reads.

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