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
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.