BEGGING FOR VIOLENCE OR ASKING FOR TROUBLE?
A monk lays down religious flags in front of the Royal Palace while leery police keep a close watch.
IMAGES of Buddhist monks being beaten and shot by police,
and reports of two bodies in saffron robes, have outraged
many citizens and sparked a debate as to whether monks
should have been participating in street marches during
September's week of unrest.
For Cambodia's overwhelmingly Buddhist population, photos
and reports of monks being beaten during the marches were
deeply disturbing. As abusing a monk is considered
equivalent to abusing one's parents or, even worse, of
committing sacrilege against Lord Buddha himself.
But police and some clergy said the monks should have
been in their pagodas during Buddhist lent.
Historically, monks and those who have at one time served
in the monkhood have played critical roles in Cambodia
over the last 150 years. Any authority in Phnom Penh has
had to keep a watchful eye on the activities of the
clergy as Buddhist temples have long been a font of
ideas, and of movements deemed a threat by political
Activist monks say there is nothing in Buddhism which
precludes them being politically engaged.
"In order to differentiate between politics and
Buddhism, the question is, what is the definition of
politics?" explained one monk.
"According to the Khmer dictionary... it is a method
to lead a group of people to a specific goal. By this
definition, I feel that Buddhism is also politics,
because Buddhism leads the people towards happiness and
He argued that the monks who demonstrated were merely
urging peace and opposing violence and corruption, not
taking sides. He explained that to do good, or to oppose
bad, is encouraged by Buddhism, and to lead others to do
the same is also encouraged.
"When a Buddhist monk finds that an action is good,
they will join that action," continued the monk.
"Also in the Buddhist principles is... to educate
the followers not to use violence, not to commit crime,
or sin. So I feel that Buddhist principles are not
separate from the principle of politics."
The Venerable In Somony of Wat Langka agreed:
"Cambodia now is marching toward democracy. The
monks joined the demonstration because the law allows
monks to vote, thus a monk also has his right to express
his opinion what he feels is not fair. In the last
demonstration, the monks did not ask anyone to step down
or to serve the political interest of any party, and the
monks did not carry any weapons. It was only the exercise
of individual right in the manner of democracy.
"There is no provision in Buddhism which prevents
monks from joining in demonstrations, it just prevents
monks from committing anything which is considered to be
In Somony expressed concern about police beating monks
without disrobing them. "The participation in
demonstrations or Dhammayietras for peace affects nothing
in Buddhism, but the actions which crack down on the
monks who just express their opinion does affect
Buddhism. The monk does not deteriorate Buddhism but the
authority does... Technically, if any monk makes any
mistake which is not acceptable in the society, that monk
has to be disrobed by the head of monks and only then
handed over to the authority so that the monk can be
Activist monks insisted that their purpose in marching
was only to encourage good actions. Buddhist patriarch
Maha Ghos-ananda has led eight epic Dhammayietras peace
marches across the country, and has been nominated for
the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
However, the monks who participated in September's street
marches admit that opposition demonstrators joined them
uninvited, and sometimes shouted abuse at police which
they do not condone.
"The police are afraid that when Buddhist monks go
and stage a Dhammayietra, it will be joined by members of
the opposition," said a second monk. "On the
other hand when the Buddhist monks do anything people
will give their wholehearted support. As a result, the
police try to prevent Buddhist monks from going
Human rights groups confirm that authorities have been
taking steps to ensure monks stay off the streets.
Pagodas have been searched by police and the gates
Monks have reportedly been threatened not to leave the
pagodas, and provincial monks have reportedly been
prevented from coming to Phnom Penh by armed forces at
Activist monks now say they are deeply afraid of police
and their weapons. Most interviewed would not give their
names, and some would not even identify their pagoda.
Yet they also surmise that the police hard line may
result from the police's fear of monks. With their
incomparable respect and influence among the
populace-at-large, monks have the ability to raise a
loyal following quickly.
"We are afraid of each other," said one
activist. "The authorities are afraid of Buddhist
monks because Buddhist monks influence Buddhist society
very well. So when Buddhist monks rise up against
anything, this uprising would be successful."
During the struggle for independence from French rule,
monks played key roles. Anti-French monks briefly fielded
a 5,000-strong peasant army in the late 1860's. It was
quickly quashed, but monks became influential dissidents
again this century.
One senior monk from Wat Mahamontrey recalled a popular
activist monk, Achar Hem Chieu, who argued against French
attempts to Romanize the Khmer script.
"At the time he gave sermons to Khmer people, he
always advised them to be careful and to take care of
Khmer scripts ... he tried to collect Khmer books and
keep them at wats," the monk said.
"Anyway, the French were not successful in
introducing Romanization of the alphabet because Khmer
alphabets were strongly maintained at pagodas,"
concluded the monk.
After Chieu's arrest, about 500 monk students in Phnom
Penh demonstrated for his release, led by influential
monk Son Ngoc Thanh. "Together Thanh and the
Buddhists initiated the first serious discussion against
colonialism in Phnom Penh ...The monks were recognized as
a separate group protecting the country's values and
culture. When these holy men began questioning French
rule, their doubts struck a deep chord in the
country," wrote historian Elizabeth Becker.
While the monk's voices were strong in the call for
independence, they also intervened in the name of
non-violence on the other side.
"If anyone was going to be killed for being a French
spy and if the monks knew about that, the monks would
successfully request the pardon from the Issarak
[resistance] to release that person," recalled the
Today's activist monks see themselves as the heirs to
that engaged yet, allegedly, even-handed tradition.
Yet others believe that political activity is entirely
inappropriate. Until the 1993 elections, monks had never
been permitted to vote, and one Wat Ounalom monk thought
this correct: "Monks should not be allowed to vote
because the monk is the messenger of Buddhism. The monk
should concentrate mainly on the principle of Buddhism
and on meditation."
He went on to say that monks who stage demonstrations can
help promote democracy through their influence, but they
harm Buddhism by doing so.
"It deteriorates Buddhism because when people see
that monks get involved with demonstrations, they feel
that monks also get involved with politics, so the monks
would become politicians, thus they don't believe much in
religion or in Buddhism.
"Under some situations, the monk should stay
quiet... Monks are the people who serve religion; we are
Yet others note that Cambodian Buddhism already has a
highly-politicized clergy, with the head of the Mohanikay
sect, the Venerable Tep Vong, appointed under the SOC
regime and considered sympathetic to the CPP, feuding
with Royalist Venerable Bou Kry, the head of Thammayut
sect, who returned to Cambodia with the King in 1991.
Noting that Tep Vong, of Wat Ounalom, often talks about
the CPP during religious ceremonies, former director of
the Khmer Buddhist Society Ou Bun Long said such
political allegiances in the clergy are unacceptable.
"They take sides, that's not allowed," Long
said. "Monks go to demonstrations that is different,
expressing their opinion. It's better than Tep Vong
staying in the temple and taking sides!"
A group of four activist monks laughed when asked about
partisan leadership. "The Buddhist principle is
different than practice," admitted the first.
But despite politicized leadership and hostility from
police, the monks vow they will continue to spread their
"We will proceed with nonviolence to ask for peace
and calm in Cambodia," said one.