Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia’s monks moonlight as correspondents on social media

Cambodia’s monks moonlight as correspondents on social media

A monk is taken in for questioning by police officials during an opposition rally last week in Oddar Meanchey province. FACEBOOK
A monk is taken in for questioning by police officials during an opposition rally last week in Oddar Meanchey province. Facebook

Cambodia’s monks moonlight as correspondents on social media

Wearing an orange robe and speaking calmly into his smartphone, the Venerable Luon Sovath eased his way through the throngs of people gathered outside polling station 867 in Phnom Penh. He paused his monologue only to adjust his cellphone, talking for hours to his Facebook followers about what he saw and heard as Cambodians went to the polls for Sunday’s commune elections.

“In a democracy, the people own the country and have an obligation to come and vote,” he said during his Facebook Live broadcast.

This obligation included participation by Buddhist monks like him. “Monks are also people,” he added. Luon Sovath, 37, is the most prominent member of a group of monks who have become citizen journalists, monitoring political events and human rights conditions in Cambodia on social media.

Their efforts are part of a growing campaign by Cambodians who are using the internet to get around the government’s stranglehold on mass media and civic life. Facebook, news apps and political memes have allowed the monks and the country’s nascent political opposition to connect directly with Cambodians who have scant access to independent news media.

“Facebook changed communication and politics, because whatever politicians did, we all knew,” Luon Sovath said. “Good or bad, we could know by Facebook.”

“Previously, they just showed the good things on television. The violence against people, the land abuses, the forest clearances and the corruption they did not show on television.”

The government of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party operates or has influence over all of the country’s television stations; the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has spent years trying to get a licence to operate its own channel, without success.

So those like Luon Sovath who wanted to bring transparency to Cambodia sought inexpensive and accessible ways to connect with people, many in poor villages, outside the government-controlled networks.

“The Cambodian People’s Party has many television stations and facilities already, so we are helping people who don’t have anything, who are poor,” Luon Sovath said.

When a government critic was assassinated last year, another monk with a wide online following, But Buntenh, tracked down the killer and where he lived, breaking the news online before the police or journalists made it to the scene. On Sunday, Buntenh was posting Twitter updates from polling stations and broadcasting election results on his own Facebook Live stream.

The monks’ Election Day videos included descriptions of polling procedures, interviews with voters and exhortations for Cambodians to get out and vote. At one point during his broadcast, Luon Sovath was expelled from a polling station by police officers and threatened with legal action. Thousands of people viewed the encounter online, showing their support for the monk by posting emojis on his live stream.

Previous elections for local officials have not generated much interest because the government’s political machine has been so dominant that results were a foregone conclusion.

But a newly formed opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, performed well in the 2013 national parliamentary elections, setting off waves of street protests.

Though the opposition has struggled since then to gain a political foothold, it is still believed to have significant support among voters. Meas Ny, a political researcher in Cambodia, said that in recent travels to rural areas, he noticed a marked increase in villagers’ willingness to chat and banter about politics in public, the type of open discourse that once made many people uncomfortable.

“The people are eager to see change,” Ny said.

Unusually large crowds gathered in Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon to watch the votes be counted, and late in the day the National Election Committee announced that turnout had been a record 85.7 percent of 7.8 million registered voters.

“People are more enthusiastic, are more interested in observing the political process, and they wanted to witness the election,” said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, an anti-corruption organisation.

By late Sunday, the National Election Committee issued a statement on national television saying that only some of the results in 1,646 local races had been tallied, and that counting would continue yesterday. A government-aligned news media outlet reported that the CPP had won 1,163 of the local administrations, while the Cambodia National Rescue Party gained control of 482, or about 30 percent, up from 3 percent.

A spokeswoman for the opposition, Kem Monovithya, said the party believed it had won 46 percent of the popular vote. The official results are to be announced no later than June 25. Observers are watching results closely as an indicator of what to expect in national parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

Neou Vannarin contributed reporting/The New York Times

MOST VIEWED

  • Virus tops 84 with new cases in S’ville

    The Ministry of Health on Sunday night confirmed another 31 cases of coronavirus infections, bringing the Kingdom’s total to 84 and it highest daily tally. There have been no fatalities thus far. The latest cases were found in 29 French tourists and their two Cambodian tour guides

  • Two French tourists latest Covid-19 cases in Kingdom

    The Kingdom on Saturday saw two more cases of coronavirus infections, bringing the total to 53. While the majority of the previous cases are linked to a Muslim religious gathering in Malaysia, the latest cases involved two French tourists visiting Sihanoukville. The Ministry of Health said

  • Kingdom’s virus toll tops 84, Cambodians in Thailand rush home

    The Ministry of Health on Sunday night confirmed another 31 cases of coronavirus infections, bringing the Kingdom’s total to 84 and its highest daily tally. There have been no fatalities thus far. The latest cases were found in 29 French tourists and their two Cambodian tour guides

  • NBC calls for cashless payments

    The National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) has urged government ministries, financial institutions and the public to conduct cashless payments via electronic systems where possible to combat the spread of Covid-19. “To contribute to the prevention of Covid-19, the National Bank of Cambodia encourages financial institutions

  • CEO held for fraud in Siem Reap

    Over 200 individuals gathered in front of the Siem Reap Provincial Court last week to ask that Dim Suonnath, the CEO of a real estate company being held for fraud, take responsibility for compensating some 2,000 residents who invested with him. The request was denied. Suonnath responded

  • Ministry calls for home schooling

    Minister of Education, Youth and Sport, Hang Chuon Naron appealed to parents of students to provide home education in a proper environment and help them obtain more learning materials. The ministry also allowed schools to take a premature vacation after several people tested positive for