​ Activist monks dare to defy authorities | Phnom Penh Post

Activist monks dare to defy authorities


Publication date
12 September 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : James Eckardt and Chea Sotheacheath

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Riot police spray demonstrating monks with foul-smelling water on Street 240 near the US Embassy. Police opened fire on the monks, wounding two, just before the fire trucks arrived.

IN THE past month, monks have gone from ceremonial bystanders at political rallies

- blessing whoever is at the podium - to speakers, marchers and organizers in their

own street demonstrations.

This activist upsurge, ironically, comes during the three-month Buddhist Lent when

regulations confine monks to contemplation and study, forbidding them to leave their

wats from sundown to sunrise.

More importantly to ordinary Cambodians, the period from Sept 6-19 is Kan Ben, the

most sacred in their calender. This "rotation" period is a time for families

to offer food and attend prayer meetings in preparation for the culminating ceremony

of Pchum Ben.

Before sunrise on Pchum Ben, Sept 20, families walk three times around their local

wat, scattering rice to feed the spirits of their dead. If not fed on this day, the

spirits must wander for another year.

For this past week, it has been the monks who are wandering. And images of them being

beaten and shot have been beamed around the world by television, causing incredulity

among people from Buddhist countries such as Thailand.

Two monks were shot by police during a Sept 9 protest near the US Embassy, but the

Buddhist demonstrators still refused to disperse. Fire trucks arrived a few minutes

later and hosed down the monks, who hid behind their sun umbrellas and chanted defiantly

at their attackers.

The scene was only broken when riot police moved in a second time, beating and kicking

all those who refused to budge.

At a Sept 10 march involving perhaps 8,000 or more people, monks were at the forefront.

As the afternoon waned and the marchers streamed down Sihanouk Boulevard past Wat

Mohamontrey, 100 monks gathered outside the gates to cheer them on.

Thirty monks spontaneously broke ranks to jump on the pillions of moto drivers.

Waving Buddhist flags, they led the charge down Sihanouk to Independence Monument,

up Norodom Boulevard to Wat Phnom and then back to the National Assembly.

Moto drivers' mobility and monk's nobility combined to make effective shock troops.

Monks were also in the forefront on Sept 8, when they bore the brunt of a police

charge on Monivong Boulevard. Beaten and hosed with water cannon, some 15 monks retreated

to their wat.

"I was running away from the police, looking behind me, when I tripped over

a motorcycle and burned my leg on the hot muffler," said Siv Bun Vanna, as he

rubbed salve on his burn. He had run barefoot for the 2km back to his wat.

"If the government wants to keep Buddhist monks from getting involved in politics,

they should not allow monks to vote. But we do vote. We select a good person and

when we select that person that means we like him and when we like him, we support


"I did not expect those police to beat monks," snapped another monk angrily,

his right arm and head bandaged.

"Whoever causes any injury to a monk, it is like they look down on the King

too. Even the King pays respect to monks. We saw that there had been violence against

people and monks in other demonstrations so we decided to hold today's peace march

to calm both sides down."

"Police were beating and stepping over monks," Siv Bun Vanna added. To

place a foot over a monk is considered a sacrilege.

"If they look down on monks, why do they put the word 'religion' in the national

motto?" asked another wounded monk.

The monks expressed their fear that they would be arrested. They repeated rumors

that some monks were missing, chased out of their wats for joining demonstrations.

At Wat Ounalom, about 12 frightened monks had barricaded themselves into a room at

the top of one of the pagoda buildings.

Four plain-clothed men in sunglasses kept their own vigil outside the building, squatting

in the shade, making notes of people who entered the wat, including an opposition

leader and a journalist.

"We cannot leave," one of the monks said. "But you must get help from

the United Nations. Four of our number have not returned" from a demonstration

in which one of them was smacked over the head with a rifle butt.

Ou Bunlong, leader of the Khmer Buddhist Society, defended the right of monks to

take part in demonstrations.

"In previous regimes, monks were not allowed to vote. But the law now states

that they can. Either joining demonstrations is wrong or the law is wrong.

"If the government does not want monks to become involved in politics, they

should ask the National Assembly to take away the voting rights of monks."

He added that Buddhist precepts allowed monks to be away from their wats for a maximum

of six days during the three-month Buddhist Lent, so demonstrating monks may not

be in technical violation of their vows.


A policeman tries to prevent his fellow officer from kicking a monk demonstrating near the US Embassy on Sept 9.

A sterner view came from senior monk Un Sum, who declared on national television

Sept 10: "Monks from the provinces and pagodas of the city have attended illegal

demonstrations with civilians. This is against the rules of Buddhism. When police

tried to break up demonstrations, there were also monks in the crowd. Frightened

by the police, monks fell down and struck each other, causing their own injuries."

A head monk from one of Phnom Penh's biggest pagodas, who asked not to be named,

told the Post: "We request the United Nations and the United States to help

solve the problems because right now we are in great repression from the authorities.

"We Buddhist monks and lay people are only now holding the demonstration to

request the corpses back to hold a Buddhist ceremony," he said in reference

to rumors of missing bodies of demonstrators. A monk severely injured near the Hotel

Sofitel Cambodiana on Sept 7 has disappeared.

"The motive of the government is to commit violence against Buddhist monks,"

the old man said, his voice quaking. "The government persecutes ordinary people.

The government commits electoral fraud."

He added that the police could not use the excuse that Phnom Penh's pagodas were

full of homeless people, and therefore home to those active with the opposition.

"In fact there is just one homeless person here," he said, pointing to

a small boy squatting nearby. "How could this boy be active in organizing a


Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Sept 10: "The crackdown on the

monks, I do not justify this.

"But within the monk protesters, a few of them are not real monks. They just

became monks when the sit-in took place."

Sopheak said the police did not use deadly force against the monks. "If police

shot at monks, 10, 20 would be killed," he said, adding that the police shot

into the air, not at the crowd.

He guessed that the monks' gunshot wounds must have come from skyward-aimed bullets

returning to the earth, or from richochets.

Sopheak took issue with reports of a dead monk, asking: "What is the name of

this monk? What pagoda is he from... I think this is a fake monk, a pretext to...

cause bad public sentiment."

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