The first Buddhist monk to ever testify at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday described being defrocked and forced to work under the communist regime, which prohibited the “reactionary” religion, used pagodas as prisons and killed monks who opposed them.
Testifying as a witness in Case 002/02 against former Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the Venerable Em Phoeung recalled the radical socialist regime’s contempt for the country’s national religion, which they abolished after seizing power in 1975.
“[The Khmer Rouge] said that Buddhist religion would lead to no progress at all, because then there would be more free people who would do nothing and just freely enjoy the food offered by other people,” he said. “[They said] only the culture of engaging in labour would follow.”
Phoeung told the court he walked for more than a month from his pagoda in Phnom Penh to his previous pagoda in Takeo province’s Tram Kak district after being instructed to evacuate the city on April 17, 1975.
He said he and other monks at the pagoda were treated like “17 April people”, and forced to dig canals, build dams, farm cassava and pick vegetables in their robes, a violation of Buddhist discipline.
Then, in 1976, Phoung said he learned he and fellow monks would be defrocked.
“We were given clothes, a shirt and pants and a pair of shoes, and then we were instructed that we had to leave the monkhood in a month’s time and had to go and engage in building dams or digging canals,” he said.
Phoeung , who then moved to Kampot’s Banteay Meas district, said he was assigned to work with a mobile unit and began to secretly pray at night.
He said he was told that a monk had been murdered at a pagoda in Tram Kak district’s Samrong commune for protesting “cruel” treatment, while another from a pagoda in Kampot had disappeared after burning a scarf and refusing to join the Khmer Rouge’s youth group.
However, despite the Khmer Rouge’s official rejection of Buddhism – which included shutting down pagodas – Phoeung said he was called upon to officiate and preach at a Khmer Rouge forced wedding of about 20 people.
He added that he refused and avoided a forced marriage, but conceded his case was “strange”. Charges in Case 002/02 include the regime’s treatment of Buddhists.
Following the testimony, Chea’s defence lawyer Victor Koppe applied for a postponement of hearings, taking issue with the prosecution’s submission of numerous new witness statements from the Case 004 investigation.
Koppe said it was “unacceptable” that so much potentially relevant evidence was being submitted without giving teams time to review it.