Abbot Men Chan Ponleu ... as the Post interview began, a monk materialised to video-record the proceedings, but they were less enthusiastic about the Post photographing them in return.
E'S got armed military bodyguards, a guard dog and a reputation for condoning if
not encouraging acts of sadistic violence.
But for Men Chan Ponleu, Abbot of Wat Vongkot Borei in Phnom Penh, it's all just
part of the Dharma.
"Buddha said that violence is not allowed, but in the present men must make
their own decisions," Ponleu said of the allegations of ille-gal detentions
and torture at the wat.
"If someone came to create disorder within the pagoda, monks have the right
to intervene, to arrest the person and give him to the authorities."
Ponleu's somewhat unforgiving interpretation of Buddhist principles is understandable
in light of his background.
A Ministry of Cults and Religion investigation has revealed that Ponleu's decision
to become a monk followed an interruption in his previous career path - that of a
policeman in Kandal province - due to his 1993 arrest and conviction for impersonating
a police colonel.
The ministry's discovery that Ponleu maintains an arsenal of between five and six
AK-47s and an equal number of handguns on the wat grounds suggest that his old police
reflexes have been slow to fade.
Under the watchful gaze of his personal guard dog and a pair of fellow monks who
photographed and videotaped a rambling one-hour interview Ponleu granted the Post
on October 24, the besieged abbot angrily dismissed suggestions that his pagoda is
the site of near-routine ritual violence against perceived transgressors.
According to Ponleu, the two boys who initiated the investigations into activities
at his wat by telling police and UN human rights investigators that they had been
confined and tortured at the pagoda on Oct 15 and 16 are thieves and liars.
"Those two men created chaos in the pagoda, using the [October 15] Kathen ceremony
to try to steal money donated to the pagoda to help flood victims," Ponleu said.
Ponleu denies knowledge of any subsequent violent retribution meted out to the two
"thieves" ("I don't know about this ... this didn't happen in the
pagoda..."). And Ponleu is adamant that human rights investigators with the
Cambodian Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR) have violated
his rights and the sanctify of his wat.
"They came to investigate without a court's warrant; they were totally wrong
... they did not ask my permission first," Ponleu said of UN and Licadho workers
who accompanied Phnom Penh Municipal Court Prosecutor Yet Chariya to investigate
allegations of illegal detention and torture at the wat. "A number of white
people [from the UN] wanted to break a lock to get into a room ... that was abusive."
Efforts by the Post to confirm UN investigators' eyewitness reports that Ponleu has
his own private security force of four armed military bodyguards were unsuccessful.
However the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Cults and Religions, In Visa Um,
verified investigators' allegations of Abbot Ponleu's bizarre and violent behaviour.
"For me he is unholy because he drinks Khmer traditional wine, has girls [to
give him massages] in his room, possesses AK-47s, detains boys, [and] had a Landcruiser,
and now a Nissan pickup," Visa Um said.
"People in villages surrounding have stopped giving offerings to [Ponleu] because
they consider him unholy."
Visa Um said swift resolution of the taint of scandal attached to the wat was necessary,
both to protect the reputation of Cambodian Theravada Buddhism, and for the sake
of the soul of Hun Sen's mother, whose body is buried within the wat.
"If [Ponleu] continues to lead the pagoda, the soul of Samdech Hun Sen's mother
will not rest in peace," he said.
The Ministry of Cults and Religion is expected to send a letter to Cambodia's Supreme
Patriarch, the Venerable Tep Vong, asking that Ponleu be disrobed as a monk and ejected
from Wat Vongkot Borei.