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NEC seeks to help monks vote

An election official checks the identification cards of two monks at Sothearos High School in Phnom Penh during the 2013 national elections.
An election official checks the identification cards of two monks at Sothearos High School in Phnom Penh during the 2013 national elections. Hong Menea

NEC seeks to help monks vote

The National Election Committee (NEC) submitted a letter to the Ministry of Interior on Monday recommending that bureaucratic obstacles preventing the Kingdom’s 60,000 monks from registering to vote
be resolved.

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said yesterday that monks are legally entitled to voter registration, as “monks are people of Cambodia”, but are currently blocked from registering because they lack national ID cards.

In 2013, new national ID cards equipped with electronic and biometric technology were released, and current election laws make them a requirement for voter registration.

In 2007, however, the Ministry of Interior determined that monks couldn’t be issued government IDs because they lacked identifying hair, a move with possible political motivations, said Koul Panha, executive director of election monitoring NGO Comfrel. Since then, he added, monks have had to make do with IDs issued by the monkhood itself.

“In the past the monks were able to use religious [ID] cards to register” he said, adding that the cards were “rendered illegitimate” by current regulations.

A solution is for the government to change the sub-decree, said Panha, who expressed support for the NEC’s push to have monks registered.

“This recommendation contributes to the protection of electoral rights of citizens, especially religious people, as granted by the constitution,” he said.

Monkhood suffrage has been an ongoing question since Cambodia’s saffron-clad population first gained voting rights in 1993.

“Earlier there was conflict between activist monks and preacher monks,” said Venerable But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, in reference to Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong’s 2003 ban on monks from exercising their voting rights because it allegedly contradicted Buddhist principles.

Vong reversed the decision in 2006 but not before Sam Bunthoeun, head of Wat Langka pagoda and a vocal suffrage activist, was shot dead by still-unknown assailants in front of the pagoda in 2003.

Buntenh maintains that the government has political reasons for making it difficult for monks to vote, “because the monks do not support the ruling party, [so the government] makes difficulties for us”.

The NEC’s move found support among the opposition, with Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy taking to his Facebook page to say he “welcomed the decision”.

According to Panha, the only way for monks to register at the moment is to request temporary documents from the Interior Ministry, a bureaucratic step Buntenh says is evidence of authorities “trying to create obstacles”.

Buntenh agreed that the problem lies in the law, saying, “The new election laws were created without concern for people from all walks of life.”

The Ministry of Cult and Religious Affairs declined to comment yesterday.

Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, also declined to comment, saying he had not yet seen the NEC’s letter.

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