At the Stung Meanchey pagoda in the capital’s Meanchey district, activism is something some monks say attracts the wrath of the abbot.
So monks there who want to protest have been going to the nearby Samaki Rainsy pagoda – where activism is expected.
“The monks don’t just eat and sleep for free,” said Thach Ha Sam Ang, Samaki Rainsy’s deputy chief monk. “All the monks have to get involved in social activity. It’s not a rule, but as you know, many monks here are Khmer Krom, so they have to join.”
Khet Vannak and Thach Sang, who were arrested outside Samaki Rainsy yesterday, are two such monks who live by Sam Ang’s mantra – even though they live at Stung Meanchey.
“The chief of Samaki Rainsy supports our activism 100 per cent,” fellow monk Yang Soeung said. “The chief monk at Stung Meanchey does not.”
Soeung himself is one of a small group of monks from Stung Meanchey who have found a more welcoming environment for their activism at Samaki Rainsy.
“I come here to join the protests. Samaki Rainsy has a good relationship with one room of monks at Stung Meanchey. Whenever there is political activity, we contact each other.”
In recent months, much of that activity has been in the form of protests against a now-removed Vietnamese Embassy official who offended them with his words about the history of the Kampuchea Krom provinces in the Mekong Delta.
Most of the pagoda’s 66 monks are Khmer Krom, as are some of their allies at Stung Meanchey.
Vannak and Sang, as well as Soeun Hay – who was arrested on Tuesday – were involved in protests in which Vietnamese flags were burned, making them targets, Soeung said.
“I called [Vannal and Sang] yesterday and asked them to bring the Cambodian and Buddhist flags they still had from another protest,” he said. “They just brought them to give to the people. But authorities were angry that they burned Vietnamese flags last time. It’s 100 per cent political.”
Early last month, Hay said he spent $190 of his own money buying Vietnamese flags that were burned in protests.
It came amid tension at his pagoda, where the abbot, Thai Bunthoeun, was trying to have Hay and two others expelled for their involvement in protests.
Soeung said that he himself has been in trouble with the abbot and expects that he is also on the police’s radar.
“I’ve never been arrested. But they clearly know my face after I helped people from Malai,” he said, referring to protesters who had stayed at Samaki Rainsy.
The monks has been joining protests since 2010, Soeung said. They claim no alliance with a political party and are not affiliated with But Buntenh’s Independent Monks Network or any land activist groups, he added.
“We know Tep Vanny and the Boeung Kak community,” he said. “On Tuesday, we had a meeting about how to help those people arrested. We’re not part of their community, but we are all victims.
“The villagers’ pain is the monks’ pain. We won’t stop protesting.”
About 30 of them joined protests near the Stung Meanchey pagoda on election day last year, but Soeung claims they were not involved in the rioting that ensued.
“We wanted intervention for those who had legal documents but were told they could not vote,” Soeung said.
As well as taking to the streets themselves, the monks are also continuing to take in villagers from the provinces when they come to Phnom Penh to protest.
A group of women from Preah Vihear in the pagoda yesterday said they had ventured to the capital to seek Prime Minister Hun Sen’s intervention in a three-year-long land dispute.
But following the arrest of Vannak and Sang, a heavy security presence had kept them from marching to the premier’s house.
“We’re not really sure what we will do now,” one of them said.
Sam Ang, the deputy chief monk, believes that the arrest of the monks is designed to pressure those planning to travel to Phnom Penh.
“They’re worried about a land revolution – so they have to deter them,” he said.
At Stung Meanchey yesterday, two monks showed the differing attitudes that prevail there when it comes to activism.
“Some monks here protest,” said Sang Vuthy, 33, who sat reading an English-language newspaper. “But there were more before [the political deal of July 22]. I used to protest against election fraud.
“It’s simple. Some monks like the CNRP, some monks like the CPP. The head monk here likes the CPP.”
Bunthoeun, the abbot, was not available for comment.
Long Lim, an elderly monk who sat on a step reading a Buddhist text, believes protesting is something monks should steer clear of.
“I never protest and I don’t know why others do. To me, you should study Buddhism and then practice it. That is enough,” he said.