Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Monks walk a tightrope between peace and politics

Monks walk a tightrope between peace and politics

Monks walk a tightrope between peace and politics



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

Mahamontrey monk.

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

not politicians."

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.


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