Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of demonstrations at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh this week. But activism by the clergy is not a new phenomenon in Cambodia or across the region
In demonstrations at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh this week, Buddhist monks have been ever present. They have been at the forefront of calls to remove the barbed-wire barriers and open the area again to freedom of expression and opposition to the government.
They have also taken a leading role in a number of protests in the past year, from supporting workers’ strikes for more pay in the garment and service sectors to backing residents and institutions displaced by land grabs.
“We don’t want the regime to control the people. We want the people to control the regime,” said But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, a group at the forefront of anti-government protests. “Whoever are the justice lovers, we will side with them.”
Activism in saffron robes is not a new phenomenon. Monks were also at the forefront of the nationalist and independence movements, their form of non-violent protest demanding particular respect.
Nor is it solely a Cambodian phenomenon. Across the region, especially in Myanmar and Thailand, Buddhist activists are taking on an increasing breadth of issues, including ultra-nationalist and pro-government ones. As the political landscapes become more diverse and fractured, so too do their causes and positions.
The traditional role of providing moral counsel lends them a measure of credibility and some protection against reprisals.
In Myanmar, U Wirathu, a monk who has referred to himself as the “Buddhist Bin Laden”, is a focal point for anti-Muslim rhetoric and rumours – via his Facebook page and in his speeches – some of which have led to riots. He is a leader of a Buddhist nationalist movement called 969, and has been photographed receiving alms from leaders of the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Many analysts believe the uprisings could involve a measure of state sanction, orchestrated distractions from democratic failures and a way for the USDP to consolidate its hold before next year’s elections. When they come around, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to make gains.
Yet U Wirathu’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric is a far cry from that of the thousands of maroon-robed activists in the uprisings of 1988 and 2007, who risked arrest and brutal reprisals for their anti-government stance.
As political repression eased in Myanmar, the focus switched to finding ethnic scapegoats for society’s ills, and a blurring of distinctions among sangha, state and society.
In Thailand, monks participated in the 2005-2008 anti-government protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the “yellow shirts”, against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Others, fewer in number, supported the 2010 protests by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the “red shirts”, who were opposed to the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, also featured monks in their ranks.
In the pre-coup protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), one of the rally sites was commanded by Luang Pu Buddha Issara, 56, abbot of Wat Or Noi in Nakhon Pathom province.
Buddha Issara refused to answer to the protest movement’s hierarchy and took law enforcement into his own hands. He was seen interrogating undercover police that were dragged before him after being beaten by his “guards” – probably paramilitary mercenaries.
Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism, which regulates the behaviour of monks, is almost powerless to rein in such mavericks. But it concluded that Buddha Issara had breached the discipline of the Sangha Supreme Council for encouraging people to break the law and obstruct voting booths.
Buddha Issara is also the subject of a complaint by the Buddhist Association of Thailand, a non-government organisation (NGO), according to the Bangkok Post.
“Monks can have personal feelings but political expression is banned by sangha regulations,” said the association’s secretary Sathien Wipornmaha. He said Buddha Issara’s involvement in anti-government protests “destroys the image of Buddhism”.
Leader of the PDRC, Suthep Thaugsuban, in a surprise move entered the monkhood this week at Wat Thasai in Surat Thani.
Since the military takeover, his political role has been marginalised and he has been caught in a series of gaffes, such as his claim that the coup had been in the works for a year. Ordaining may be a way for him to regain some moral authority.
One monk with a good reputation among human rights activists is Phra Paisal Visalo, a former student activist who now often speaks about social justice.
In Cambodia, monk activists provide a necessary buffer on a number of social justice issues such as workers’ rights and land claims.
When residents were forcibly evicted to make room for construction developments at Boeung Kak and Boray Keila, monks were at the forefront of resistance.
As NagaWorld casino expansions threaten to engulf the Buddhist Institute, some of the few brave enough to resist the plans are openly activist monks led by But Buntenh’s network.
Being monks gives them a measure of protection against reprisals that student activists and other laypeople might not have.
“Most people believe in monks, even the prime minister and the king,” said Buntenh, 37. “And if the police want to arrest us, according to the rules, they have to get permission from the Supreme Patriarch. If the Patriarch finds the monk guilty, he must disrobe first. Otherwise they can’t arrest him.”
He admitted that the Cambodian government might not always respect those rules. In January this year, three monks from his organisation were badly beaten by police at a demonstration at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone, one of who suffered permanent brain damage. “We are not fighting against Hun Sen,” said Buntenh.
Monks present at the demonstrations this week rushed to stop attacks against security forces and protected them from further injury. “We are fighting against the regime because since 2013 this has been a huge problem in the country. We will monitor any government and support social justice. At the moment there is no justice,” said Buntenh.
One of their locations was raided by police this week, but they had already moved to a different temple. A soundproofed and windowless room at the top of an unmarked monastic building serves as their headquarters. The two computers, printers and mobile phones were donated by local NGOs, he said.
The Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, active since August 28 last year, is social media-savvy and expanding, with three new chapters in Battambang.
The 20 or so core members are supplemented by dozens, at times hundreds, of monks from around the country. They are difficult to locate and impossible to intimidate.
In Cambodia, where the consequences of dissent can be severe, they are often the only ones who can side with the poor and marginalised in the face of political and corporate might.
“We work for justice,” Buntenh said. “And we are not afraid.”