At protests staged by the embattled residents of the Boeung Kak lakeside against their impending eviction, Loun Savath cuts a distinctive figure. The 31-year-old is a tall man with a round face and a wide smile, but more than anything else, it is his orange robes that stand out from the crowd.
The venerable monk has served primarily as an observer of the protests, yet this limited role has been enough to draw harassment from local authorities and religious officials. Police, he says, have threatened him with arrest on multiple occasions, and last month, after being followed back to his home at the capital’s Wat Ounalom by a police vehicle, he fled Phnom Penh for fear of arrest.
He will not be out of action for long, however. Speaking by phone yesterday from Siem Reap province, Loun Savath said he planned to return to Wat Ounalom next week, resuming a push for social justice from which many members of the monkhood have been conspicuously absent.
“He’s unique,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the local rights group Licadho. “Now most monks spend a long time in the pagodas – some of them work with HIV-AIDS and other kinds of development projects, but I can count on one hand how many monks get involved in social issues, political issues.”
Loun Savath has played an active role in a protracted land dispute in his home village, in Siem Reap’s Chi Kraeng commune, which has seen 12 villagers jailed and three still in custody. In March of 2009, military police fired on a group of Chi Kraeng villagers attempting to harvest rice on the contested land, the most infamous incident in the long-running dispute.
Four people were injured in the shooting, including Loun Savath’s brother and nephew. Undeterred, he has continued his involvement in the struggle, at one point leading local villagers in an attempt to walk the 90 kilometres to the Siem Reap provincial court to observe a hearing in the case after police blocked the road and warned local taxi drivers away from transporting the group.
Outside another court hearing in October 2009, Loun Savath was confronted by senior monks who ushered him into a van and drove him to a nearby pagoda. There, they attempted to force him to sign a letter stating that he would stop “inciting” villagers, though he refused and was later released.
“Although the authorities have tried to threaten me many times, I have no plans to stop my actions observing people in land disputes,” Loun Savath said yesterday.
“Not only will I continue, but I will do this more, because the people’s issues are my issues.”
Loun Savath moved from Siem Reap to Daun Penh district’s Wat Ounalom in 2009, where he was initially joined by some 100 villagers from his home in Siem Reap. Here in the capital, he has continued his involvement in the Chi Kraeng saga while also working with local rights groups and branching out to other land disputes, earning the nickname “multimedia monk” for his efforts to document these cases on video.
There is no shortage of such disputes – a poll released in January by the International Republican Institute said seven percent of Cambodians had reported someone attempting to steal their land within the last three years alone – and as Loun Savath’s efforts have expanded, his profile has increased. In December, he appeared at a gala event in New York City for the human rights documentation group Witness alongside celebrities including musicians Peter Gabriel and Sheryl Crow.
At demonstrations against the evictions at Boeung Kak lake, where rights groups say over 4,000 families ultimately stand to lose their homes at the hands of a joint development project run by a Chinese firm and a ruling party senator, Loun Savath typically plays a subdued role. Even so, Pilorge said, his “moral” and “spiritual” authority make him both an important source of support for protesters and a concern for local officials.
“Aside from his videos and cameras … the only weapon he has is to start questioning people about why they want to defrock him and why they want to arrest him,” Pilorge said. “He’s really there as a monk should be, supporting people.”
While monks in Burma, for example, played key roles in mass anti-government demonstrations there in 2007, Loun Savath has received little backing for his efforts from religious officials here. Following protests against the lakeside evictions last month, Phon Davy, director of the municipal cults and religions department, said Loun Savath had in fact drawn the ire of Tep Vong, Cambodia’s highest-ranking monk.
“[Loun Savath] has violated the rules to such an extent that the Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, Tep Vong, issued a warning letter to ban all monks from joining protests,” Phon Davy said.
Boeung Kak community representative Tep Vanny said, however, that she considered Loun Savath “an example for other monks” in the Kingdom.
“If there were many other monks doing the same thing as this monk, it would be good for society, because it is the obligation of monks to always take care of the people,” she said.
Loun Savath himself has taken little heed of official criticisms, saying his activism is in fact motivated by his Buddhist beliefs.
“I am a Buddhist who sees injustice in society and the sorrow of people suffering from the loss of their land … and no one helps find justice for them” he said.
“I depend on food offered by the people, so their suffering is like mine and I have to share it with them.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAM RITH