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Come heavy, or don't come at all

Come heavy, or don't come at all

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For some Cambodian monks, the path to enlightenment is cleared by armed bodyguards who have become an increasingly common accessory for the clergy making their rounds

Heng Chivoan

A monk feeds pigeons on Phnom Penh’s riverside as multiple bodyguards, in blue shirts, look on.

WHILE in the past the primary concern of monks was to find a quiet place for contemplation, today's new generation of young clergy seem less able to leave base material concerns behind and are instead hiring bodyguards to protect themselves and their possessions.

Tep Sao, a monk at Wat Botum, said that monks are now choosing to hire bodyguards because Cambodia is a socially and politically unstable country and monks need some heavies around if they are to go out into the community and engage in social work.

"As monks we can't act disorderly like ordinary people. When we don't have bodyguards, people sometimes don't respect us as monks and they sometimes try to attack us. When we have bodyguards we feel safe and we don't have to worry," Tep Sao said, adding that some high-ranking monks, such as the chief monk at his pagoda, were assigned bodyguards by the government. 

But, Tep Sao was quick to point out that bodyguards who work for monks do not have an adverse effect on Buddhism because they are different from the bodyguards who work for high-ranking officials. "We do not allow our bodyguards to shoot guns even though they have them," he said.

Michel Tranet, former undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that he cannot condone monks having bodyguards because the monks' good deeds should mean that they do not have any enemies.

Against Buddhism?

"If they are monks and think only of dharma, how could they ever have any enemies?" Tranet asked. "Monks should avoid violence and never think of anybody as an enemy even if someone tries to do something bad to them. If monks have bodyguards, this breaks Buddhist rules.

"If a monk has a bodyguard it means that he is afraid and hasn't calmed down his emotions yet," he added.

Ki Sophorn, who works as a bodyguard for the chief monk at Wat Champoh Kaek, said that he has been ordered to protect the monastery's elder by the chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. "It is the order of the government that all chief monks must have a bodyguard," he said.

Most bodyguards who work to protect monks are provided by RCAF, the military police or ordinary police forces, and draw their salary from the government - not from the monks, said Ki Sophorn, adding that sometimes the chief monk helps him out by supplementing his wage.

"Working as a bodyguard for a monk is very easy," he said.

Meas Pov, a businessman at the Deumkor market, said that monks only use bodyguards because they are growing wealthier - frequently carrying phones and cash - and need to protect themselves from thieves. 

"Monks should not have bodyguards because it makes it very difficult for people to meet them," he said.

"People have to ask the bodyguard for permission before they can approach the monk."

Both Chhorn Iem and Zakaryya Adam, secretaries of state at the Ministry of Culture and Religion, told the Post that they were unable to comment as they did not have any information about monks using bodyguards for protection.

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