A senior monk heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam Kampuchea Krom protests in Phnom Penh last year was stabbed to death yesterday outside his residence at the capital’s Samaki Rainsy pagoda.
Thach Khan, 34, deputy chief monk of the Meanchey district pagoda, died in a private clinic after a younger monk attacked him with a knife at about 8am following a dispute, witnesses and other clergyman said.
The monk, 17, was arrested and will be sent to court today to face charges, said National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith, who added that he did not know the alleged perpetrator’s name.
Witnesses at the pagoda heard commotion from their rooms and came outside to see Khan collapse to the ground and the attacker drop a knife and flee from the scene, they said.
“He was stabbed in the front and back of his throat,” said the chief monk, Sieng Sovanara. “The perpetrator used harsh words and the victim tried to bring the monk inside so people would not hear [the argument], but he was stabbed with a knife.”
Monks said authorities had arrested a monk known as Ly Toeng, while another police officer also declined to name the accused.
“The [suspect] has been arrested, but this is being handled by the penal police,” said municipal minor crimes department chief Bun Sathya.
Officers from the penal police department and deputy police chief Chuon Narin could not be reached yesterday.
The Samaki Rainsy pagoda has been an epicentre of a fast-growing activist movement involving Buddhist monks.
“The monks don’t just eat and sleep for free,” a senior monk at the pagoda said in November. “All the monks have to get involved in social activity [but] … many monks here are Khmer Krom, so they have to join.”
Most of the pagoda’s monks – including Khan – were swept up in a series of Kampuchea Krom protests in the capital last year. Vietnamese flags were burned in the streets as crowds rallied against public comments a then-employee of the Vietnamese Embassy made about the ownership of Kampuchea Krom prior to 1949.
Monks from the nearby Stung Meanchey pagoda – where those in charge look down on activism – have also ventured to Samaki Rainsy to join protests.
Seung Hai, Khith Vannak and Sang Kosal, all involved with the activism coming out of Samaki Rainsy, were arrested during a high-profile sweep of activists in November. Hai has already been sentenced to one year in prison, and all three were denied bail on Friday.
Indicative of the passion and focus of the monks’ activism, some of them immediately expressed fears yesterday that Khan’s murder was more than just the product of a personal dispute.
“This is a premeditated attack; we can say there are others behind this,” said Lim Thy, 37, a monk in charge of discipline at Samaki Rainsy.
“Without instruction, he cannot do this himself – but we have no evidence.”
What the monks did know, Thy added, was that the suspect had come from the Kampuchea Krom provinces of southern Vietnam to live at the pagoda less than one year ago.
“But he had never attended a demonstration related to Kampuchea Krom,” he said. “When we asked him to join, he never did.”
Both Thy and Sovanara, the chief monk, said the suspect had been disciplined over his behaviour at the pagoda multiple times, most recently on Sunday night, when he tore down an official notice that had been posted on walls.
Khim Sorn, the Phnom Penh municipal director of monks, said he was not aware of the incident but added that in serious cases, police had the right to arrest monks without going through a formal defrocking process first. “According to Buddhist principles, if a monk kills someone, he automatically becomes defrocked and can be arrested,” he said.
Phorn Davy, director of the Municipal Department of Cults and Religions, said he too was unaware of the killing.
Dozens attended a funeral ceremony for Khan at the pagoda yesterday.
Monks and laypeople paid respects to a monk they said was known for generosity.
Among the mourners was opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Real Camerin.
“He was a good man. He helped a lot of people,” he said.
Camerin added that he was involved in affairs at the pagoda but was not aware of what had prompted the attack or whether the matter was of a personal or political nature.
Khan’s body will remain at the pagoda for the next six days while his relatives travel from Vietnam to say their final farewells.