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Great Supreme Patriarch

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The Venerable Tep Vong, Sangreacheathepatey, Great Supreme Patriarch, of Cambodian Buddhism.

T he Venerable Tep Vong's cellphone rings with a generic tone-almost retro. He has two sleek modern mobiles stacked at his right side, next to an ornate offering urn, a bright red lighter and a pipe. When the top phone rings in mid-sentence, the Supreme Patriarch of the Mohanikay Order of Cambodia flicks it off, distractedly.

Centered deep inside the austerity of Wat Ounalom, Tep Vong's carpeted and book-shelved greeting chamber is a museum-like array of ancient artifacts, Buddhist iconography and sepia-tinged photographs of monks and monarchs past. The room is an eclectic clutter of carvings, Chinese urns and candelabras. It's an odd menagerie where wooden water buffalo heads share shelf space with an enormous stuffed sea turtle and a collection of many colored coral. A meter-high bronze statue of a seated monk and a miniature Eiffel Tower sit before a wall of seventies-era travel posters and a vintage tourist map of Australia.

Vong was born in 1932 to a farming family in Trapeang Chak village, Siem Reap district, Siem Reap province. He spent his childhood working on the family farm. When he was 10, his mother sent him to stay at Reachbo Pagoda to study and learn discipline. When his father died in 1947 he became a monk.

Between 1970 and 1979, Vong meditated on the Dharma. During the Pol Pot regime, when monasticism was outlawed, Vong was detained and tortured for 85 days.

In 1979, Heng Samrin, Chea Sim and Hun Sen, the triumvirate newly installed by the Vietnamese to rule Cambodia, asked Vong to return to the monkhood and help with the restoration of Buddhism. In the 1981 National Assembly election Vong was elected as a deputy for Siem Reap. In July 1981, he became the vice president of the National Assembly and in 1988 became a Monk Superior. Vong became Supreme Patriarch of the Mohanikay Order in 1992 and a member of the Throne Council from September 1993.

Today, Vong sits on a raised pillow. He has an orange shawl embroidered with gold thread draped over his left shoulder. A grin exposes a silver front tooth, and an translucent tattoo is barely visible on his right shoulder. Both good humored and august, he spoke to Sam Rith and Charles McDermid on December 13 about politics, religion and the past.

Why did you decide to become a monk?

Referring to the Dharma, I wanted to have serenity for myself, and to have serenity I have to stay under the shade of Buddhism. And when I have this peace, I would like other people also to have it. It's the same for all human beings, I would like myself to have peace and when I have peace I would like other people have peace all together.

What is the role of the monks in the society?

Monks play very important roles in society.

Of first importance: when I become a monk I must achieve serenity that could make other people also have serenity.

Of second importance: monks have the role to preserve the Khmer spirit and to protect Buddhism forever. When Buddhism is protected, it can help other issues - economic, cultural, educational and so on.

So I prohibited politicians from being bad people. In the regime three years, eight months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge, 21,568 monks were killed and many other Cambodian people were killed gradually, causing a serious loss of the Khmer spirit and identity at that time.

This year, the Royal Government and the King offered me a greater role as a Sangreacheathepatey [Great Supreme Patriarch] ... that means they gave me a wider role.

Not only the Royal Government and the King offered me the priority, but also the United Nations, which observed my activities curbing the war in Cambodia and motivating people from having nothing to having food to eat, houses for shelter, the freedom to walk...

Do the monks have right to vote according to Buddhism?

According to Buddhist law and democracy, monks have right to vote. But after the chaos in 1998, all monks agreed not to vote. On November 29, 2006, it was agreed and announced that all monks can vote as citizens so that the election goes as stated in the Constitution.

What do you think about political parties today?

Political parties are always divided into two parties: the older party or host party, and the younger party or guest party. The older party or host party is the Cambodian People's Party which was supported to rule the country. So other parties are just the guest parties or younger parties.

To guarantee for the country to have peace, Buddhism in Cambodia supports having multi-parties, but not multi-regimes. So I request younger parties or guest parties to limit their opposition - do not look down, insult and make disputes that could lead to war, losing the peace, ownership and the result of 7 January [1979].

What is your understanding about creating people power?

There are two kinds of people power: One kind of people power is to protect what we already have. For example, when we have peace, we require people power to preserve it.

But the other kind of people power includes making strikes, demonstrations and terrorism that destroys existing peace. For example, Lon Nol's people power destroyed the social order of the King [Norodom Sihanouk] who had been enforcing and enlarging culture, the economy and building a lot of schools to develop the country, and having peace a hundred percent.

So religion has to check and to consider by cooperating with the Royal Government to curb people power leading to strikes, demonstrations, terrorism and coups d'etat.

Have any top government officials such as Hun Sen come to ask advice from you?

Even though they do not come here, they get my best wishes at their workplaces.

As I have seen, it is only the host party [the CPP] that brought back and protected Buddhism, such as building pagodas. But the guest and younger parties think only of destroying the national identity.

I request [guest and younger party politicians] do not make themselves become like Pol Pot and [they should] turn to helping establish the economy and culture like the host party.

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