A community that gathered yesterday to celebrate the release of farmers who had been jailed for more than two years following a land dispute were told that the monk who led their campaign to free the men had been banned from every pagoda in Siem Reap province.
The written notice from the province’s senior most monk, Venerable Pich San, was distributed ahead of the two-day event, which started on Saturday.
Pich San also banned Venerable Loun Sovath from leading the celebration and said that the monk, who has become famous for blessing communities involved in land disputes, had disobeyed Buddhist values.
Loun Sovath was undeterred by the ban.
“What I’m doing is right,” he said. “My activities are Buddhist and they do not break the law.”
He attended the heavily policed gathering of about 600 people at Wat Thmey in the province’s Chi Kraeng district and said the latest pressure from the country’s Buddhist hierarchy would not stop him from spreading his message of peaceful advocacy.
The celebration also saw a visit on Sunday by Seang Nam, a lawmaker with the Cambodia People’s Party, who provided a gift of US$500 to help pay for the event and pledged to support the community’s appeal to the government for the return of land they were driven from in 2009 by armed police.
Four farmers, including two relatives of Loun Sovath, were shot, several bludgeoned and dozens detained when police drove them from disputed rice fields in May 2009.
Twelve men were subsequently imprisoned on a variety of charges, with the final five being released only last month.
One, Seum Leap, said he had to share a five-square-metre prison cell with 17 other men.
When asked to describe what it felt like to be free, the 62-year-old replied: “I feel like I have been born again”.
Cheng Saroeun, 31, a leader of the initial protest, said he was repeatedly interrogated and mentally tortured while in prison. He said he also read law books so he could continue to fight in court for his land to be returned, explaining that “the land is our life”.
“This protest is not just for me, it’s for the new generation,” he said.
Before Loun Sovath arrived at the celebration, talks were held between United Nations staff, district police and Buddhist clergy to ensure that he would not be arrested.
People attending these discussions said that senior monks said that Loun Sovath could not continue to be both a monk and an activist because monks were not allowed to be political.
But Loun Sovath told The Post he saw no contradiction between his “politics” and Buddhism. “My politics are to lead people to happiness, justice and peace, and these are the politics of the Buddha,” he explained.
Loun Sovath was banned from pagodas in the capital earlier this year following his presence at a rally in support of communities facing eviction at the Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING THIK KALIYANN AND MAY TITTHARA