FOR almost three months, Wat Ta Ngok, 12 kilometers west of the Neak Leung ferry
terminal, has been the backdrop for some rather unholy activities: village militias
shooting their AK-47s off at night outside the gate, a district police chief marching
into the temple ground with a posse of deputies and threatening monks with handcuffs
and arrest, and villagers ganging up on the pagoda leader.
Wat Ta Ngok has been the home of 14 very young - most of them in their teens - and
very frightened monks. Since the older head monk fled the pagoda on June 22, fearing
for his own security, they have lived in a constant state of dread and anxiety -
not daring to leave the pagoda to even go and beg for food.
Meanwhile, local villagers, militia and police have been keeping a close eye on any
movement within the temple walls. When the dispute first resurfaced, human rights
workers said police had threatened to shoot anyone investigating the affair, including
rights workers and journalists.
But now visitors to Wat Ta Ngok are greeted by a large crowd of people - civilians
as well as officials - eager to explain exactly what is the problem at the pagoda.
Their explanations varied significantly, because the community around Wat Ta Ngok
has been split in two over the pagoda conflict. A small group has backed the former
head monk, Mong Chheun, while a larger faction has supported the district authorities
and seven achars (laymen) working in the temple.
The first group - and reportedly the head monk himself - said the conflict is all
about money - about a large donation the head monk refused either to hand over to
the district authorities or to spend on what the district chief wanted.
The second group said it's because Chheun violated Buddhist regulations. They said
he had a relationship with a girl and practiced strange, unknown medicine. All together
they have collected 43 different "cases" against the head monk.
For instance, the villagers claimed the head monk stole a suitcase with 50 plates,
40 bamboo mats, 10 wooden planks and five tons of rice from the pagoda. He is alleged
to have driven all the loot to his parents' house, and the theft was supposedly witnessed
by the father-in-law of Chheun's brother.
The villagers, led by a local high school teacher, Chea Samith, also have a signed
confession from 1995, when the head monk was in a different pagoda, in which he admits
having an affair with a woman.
Some villagers said Samith filed a complaint against the head monk, but Samith himself
"People are confused about my role; I didn't make a complaint: on the contrary,
I'm trying to mediate in the dispute," said Samith as he pulled out a heavy
file containing documents he alleged backed up the 43 "cases".
Whatever the real reason for the squabbles, the conflict has been brewing since 1997.
Around Khmer New Year this year, it suddenly broke out again, and the district head
monk ruled that Chheun should be disrobed and thrown out of the pagoda.
When Chheun refused to leave, the intimidation began. The district police chief threatened
to arrest Chheun and throw him in jail, and on at least one occasion village militia
fired warning shots into the air in front of the temple gate late at night.
In the end, Chheun sneaked out of the pagoda and fled to Phnom Penh.
But the 14 other monks were left behind among angry villagers and hostile police
- a situation that has filled all of them with fear.
"I'm very scared that they will try to attack us during the night," said
a clearly nervous 22-year-old monk, constantly glancing around for eavesdroppers
outside the wooden hut where the monks now huddle together.
At Post press time, Chheun had left Phnom Penh together with the provincial head
monk to go back to Wat Ta Ngok to solve the dispute.
However, that may not calm the tempers around the temple. The district pagoda has
already appointed a new head monk and a week earlier, when the Post visited Wat Ta
Ngok, Samith said that Cheun would not be welcome.
"If Chheun comes back here, the people will not accept him. They will stop him
from entering the pagoda. They will stop him from entering the district," he