Cambodia’s top monastic leader, Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, urged the nation’s monks yesterday to vote for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, explaining that the outcome of the 2018 national election has been “arranged already”.
“We are alive until now because of the solidarity of the government … We need to consider the many good points of the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Vong said at a national conference for monks at Chaktomuk Hall yesterday.
Vong, who was himself a senior official in the group that would become the CPP, urged the gathered monks to think carefully about what the ruling party has provided before voting.
He went on to parrot the longstanding CPP narrative that Hun Sen and his colleagues saved Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime that persecuted and killed monks and Buddhists.
“We have Buddhism, we can live, we have unity and peace and progress. If we dare to break the solidarity, we will die,” Vong said.
“The CPP’s principles are highly valuable and they are the lives of our nation. Further, the CPP has developed human resources, natural resources and the environment,” he added.
“The [opposition] party has never won the election and it should not try anymore because it is arranged already. The winner and loser are assigned already,” Vong explained.
Last month, the Supreme Court ruled to summarily dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only viable competitor to the CPP, in a widely condemned decision. For years, Vong has argued that monks, often seen as leaning towards the CNRP, should not have the right to vote.
Vong, meanwhile, served as vice president of the first National Assembly in 1979, the year Hun Sen and other present-day CPP members – known as the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation – invaded along with a Vietnamese army to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. Vong served on the central committee of the Front, which would later become the CPP.
Researcher Alexandra Kent, in her paper A Shifting Universe – Religion and Moral Order in Cambodia, argues that the appointment of Vong as supreme patriarch of the Mohanikay order in 1991 “completely rearranged the traditional relationship between leader, sangha [monkhood], and people by placing the leadership of the Buddhist faith within, and beneath, the realm of politics”.
“As monks with more impressive monastic credentials than the Venerable Tep Vong began returning from exile . . . the moral legitimacy of the politicized ecclesiastical hierarchy was called into question by many,” the paper continues.
Kent notes that the government showed no fear in using violence to crack down on monks protesting the 1998 elections.
“The government’s disregard for the sanctity of the monastic robe kept many monks in fearful silence,” she wrote.
“When the honorable Tep Vong – who is broadly seen as a mouthpiece for Hun Sen’s CPP party – announced just before the 2003 elections that it was contrary to Buddhism for monks to vote, many saw this as the Patriarch trying to prevent monks from supporting the opposition,” the piece adds.
Sam Kuntheamy, director of election watchdog Nicfec, yesterday raised concerns about Vong’s comments.
“They can choose any party they like,” he said of rank and file monks, adding that the “chief monk is supposed to be neutral”.
“If he appeals to any monk to vote for CPP, it’s wrong,” Kuntheamy said.
Political analyst Meas Nee said the statements arguably even violated the Constitution, which declares that “Buddhism is the state religion”.
“Based on the Constitution I think you cannot use the monkhood for political purpose . . . What would be the political party and what is the nation as a whole?” he asked.
Nee went on to say that religion is a powerful social concept that the CPP is likely eager to co-opt to win votes.
“The role of religion – not only Buddhism . . . plays an important role in building social capital . . . In any country, we are aware that religion has an influence over the head and hearts of the people,” he said.
Updated: Thursday 14 December 2017, 6:43am