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Crackdown at pagoda

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Loun Sovath blesses Prey Lang villagers last month.

Ten university students and five monks at Phnom Penh’s Ounalom pagoda, the former residence of campaigning monk Venerable Loun Sovath, had been threatened with eviction if they had any contact with him, monks said yesterday.

The ultimatum was reportedly delivered by Supreme Patriarch Non Nget to senior monks on Sunday, during the monthly prayer session that coincides with the full moon, the group of monks said on condition they were not identified individually.

Earlier that day, Loun Sovath had visited the pagoda to greet other monks and students who had shared his accommodation, they said.

Those living in part of the complex in which he lived  include monks from Siem Reap, Svay Rieng, Takeo, Battambang and Kampuchea Krom, including some of the Kingdom’s most educated monks.

Monks at the pagoda said the Supreme Patriarch was under political pressure to rein in Loun Sovath, but that both he and they support Loun Sovath’s efforts to pursue peaceful advocacy on behalf of communities facing the loss of land to well-connected companies and individuals.

“We feel great pity for the people who are losing their land,” one senior monk at the pagoda explained.

Any attempt to defrock Loun Sovath would fan growing anger among monks at alleged political interference in Buddhism, the senior monk said.

“Before the Khmer Rouge, monks had freedom to speak and people listened. Now, we are still weak but we are gett-ing stronger,” he said.

A student living at the pag-oda, who asked not to be named, said Loun Savath had just come to visit friends.

He said the ban on contact with Loun Sovath was a warning to other monks not to follow in his footsteps.

Supreme Patriarch Non Nget declined to comment yesterday, saying through an aide that he was deep in prayer.

Porn Davy, director of the municipal department of cults and religion, said the monks and students were banned from contact with Loun Savath because he had disobeyed an order to refrain from joining protests with villagers.

“I dare not comment more, because it is the Supreme Pat-riarch’s decision,” he said.

Loun Sovath was banned from staying at pagodas in the capital in April, after attending a rally of residents of Boeung Kak who were protesting against plans to evict them.

Last month, he was banned from pagodas in his home province of Siem Reap ahead of a celebration to mark the release of 12 men from his community who had been jailed following a land dispute in which two members of his family were shot in 2009.

The shootings of his relatives, and the land dispute, galvanised the rural monk, who had previously devoted his time to painting murals on the inner walls of temples and pursuing the  meditation techniques he learned from Venerable Sam Bunthoeun, who was shot outside Wat Lanka in 2003.

Over the past two years, he has visited communities in every province, educating them about the 2001 Land Law, human rights and Buddhist precepts. He responded to news that the students and monks faced eviction by calling on the Supreme Patriarch to show mercy to them.

“The monks and students have done no wrong,” he said, adding that he would remove his belongings from his room at the residence.

Although Loun Savath has been banned from residing at the pagoda, he has a room on the ground floor of the residence. The door to it has remained locked, and he still carries its key.

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