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Comment: The Sangha in Politics: Challenges and Consequences

Comment: The Sangha in Politics: Challenges and Consequences

Participation by monks in the general elections and the broader problem of their

involvement in political activity is an extremely sensitive issue for the Sangha

and the country at large, particularly given that Cambodia is facing radical changes

in political, economic and social fields, and is in the process of forming democratic

institutions. Under different political regimes that have existed in Cambodia since

1953 till now, the degree of the monastic community's involvement in political activity

has been significantly different, while the consequences for Cambodian society have

remained quite controversial.

In the period of the first Kingdom of Cambodia headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk

(1953-1970), Buddhism, being a state religion, was the most important element of

state ideology and an integral part of the conception of "Khmer Buddhist socialism".

It was precisely Buddhism that Cambodian politicians endeavored to present as the

national specifics of Cambodia, a symbol of unity and a factor in the legitimacy

of state authority. Buddhist symbolism and ritualism were actively used as the trappings

of power.

While showing much attention to the preservation of institutions and values of Buddhism

in Cambodian society, Norodom Sihanouk as the head of the state at the same time

strove to limit the monkhood's activity to religious and social domains, the role

of keeper of traditional moral and ethical norms. The government's cooperation with

the monkhood was realized in several fields, mainly in public health, education and

the socioeconomic sphere, primarily, in carrying out irrigation works. However, before

the end of the 1960s the Sangha was practically debarred from political activity

and banned from voting. The Sangha's significance in society's political life, during

that period, was conditioned not by direct implementation of any secular political

programs, but by its capacity to legitimize them and create a favorable sociopolitical

climate around these programs for their successful fulfillment by secular authorities.

Thereby, the Sangha was performing a more traditional role as an institution stabilizing

the country's spiritual life and political system.

The prevention of the Sangha's "politicization" under Norodom Sihanouk's

rule led to the maintenance of prestige for the monks and the Sangha as a whole.

The monk leading "a Buddhist way of life" enabled the peasant to "accumulate

merit", ie to accomplish his religious duty. It strengthened the maintenance

of the 'peace of mind' of the peasant world and the creation of a favorable psychological

climate in the Khmer countryside.

Besides, the Sangha's debarment from open political activity helped preserve its

structural integrity, despite the existence of antagonisms among the various groups

of monks within it. It was the united Sangha that could perform a traditional socially

integrating role in Cambodian society on both the micro and macro levels.

After the coup of March 18, 1970, and the establishment of the Khmer Republic, the

Sangha was drawn into politics. In the 1970s monks' involvement in worldly affairs

and their political activities became for many a distinctive yardstick of adherence

to Buddhist teachings. The Sangha became free of the tight restrictions imposed on

it by the previous regime, which led to a strong politicization of the monkhood,

and to a decrease of the purely religious activity of the monks themselves. This

social phenomenon led to unexpected results: a certain moral degradation among Sangha

members, with a loss of the monks' authority and prestige in the eyes of the population.

Some Khmers said that the mainsprings of Buddhism were lost throughout the country,

while the faith looked like an empty ritual.

The complexity of the political situation in the country in the early 1970s, as well

the civil war, led to the Sangha's open split into two groupings that supported conflicting

forces, the Lol Nol regime and the National United Front of Kampuchea. The Sangha

ceased to be an institution traditionally ensuring the stability and continuity of

the process of the country's sociopolitical development, performing a socially integrative

role at the level of both the countryside and society at large.

After the formation of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) in 1979, the authorities

put among their political priorities the renaissance of Buddhism and the Sangha.

The ruling circle pursued purely pragmatic aims: to revive a traditional form of

its legitimation in the eyes of the population, which was extremely important for

broadening the regime's social base by enlisting the support of the peasantry and

intelligentsia and to engage the monkhood's intellectual potential, as during the

Pol Pot rule the number of educated people in the country sharply decreased.

The government of the PRK effectively used the monks in political activity. The government

declared that the monks, being citizens first, were obliged to perform their civic

obligation in the cause of rebuilding the country. The monks were accorded the right

to vote officially legitimizing their participation in political activity. The strategic

line in Sangha activity, formulated by the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea,

demanded from monks "to link the Buddhist religion with the revolutionary path

of the country's development" and "to wage a struggle for religion 'pure'

from the revolutionary point of view". In 1980s the Sangha's traditional role

as a keeper of the moral principals of society was in fact consigned to oblivion-the

secular authorities mentioned it in passing, as something of little importance.

However, such a policy of Cambodia's ruling circle had negative consequences for

the general process of stabilization of the situation in the country. The numerous

restrictions imposed on the Sangha, its forced involvement into politics, led to

the emergence of opposition inside the Sangha and the proliferation of illegal monks,

ie those who did not agree with the government's course in the field of religion.

While the official Sangha in the mid-1980s numbered 6,000, there were twice as many

non-registered monks-around 11,000. Thus, two de facto parallel monastic structures

existed in the country-the legal and the illegal. The Sangha continued to play a

disintegrating role alien to it, entrenching the split and confrontation in society.

In the 1990s, real opportunities for the revival of religious values and the growing

importance as a preserver of the moral and ethical foundation of society, a moral

guide of the nation, opened up before the Khmer Sangha. The Sangha is increasingly

playing a decisive role in the embodiment of the universal values of compassion,

non-anger, nonviolence and solidarity, which is crucial in a society dominated by

violence for decades.

Without doubt, the economic and socio-cultural changes which have taken place in

Cambodia have forced the Khmer Sangha to face new realities. In order to adapt to

them, the Sangha needs to be more society-oriented. This implies that monks should

be involved in different community projects, moral education, assisting children

from poor backgrounds and raising public awareness on ecological issues. However,

all these tasks can be carried out only by a unified Sangha, not one split into different


Monks are trusted by the people, which is why politicians wish to use the Sangha's

authority for the implementation of their purely secular tasks. But as the previous

political experience of Cambodia shows, the monks will be trusted as long as they

stay independent of any politicians, as long as they are neutral and free to express

their own opinion on different issues.

* Nadezda Bektimirova is a professor at Moscow State University, where she lectures

on the history and religion of Cambodia.


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