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On politics, silence gold: top monks

Monks participate at a CNRP-led practice demonstration in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Sunday
Monks participate at a CNRP-led practice demonstration in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Sunday. VIREAK MAI

On politics, silence gold: top monks

Cambodia's highest monks have called on the clergy to refrain from joining any political demonstrations, calling it an abuse of morals and professional ethics.

In a statement issued on Sunday and obtained yesterday, the three top Buddhist leaders liken joining protests to the act of killing.

“An individual who kills or bothers someone is not a priest,” the statement reads. “The unity of monks is what allows for harmony.”

It is signed by Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, Supreme Patriarch Non Nget and Great Supreme Patriarch Bour Kry, leaders of the Maha Nikaya and Dhammayuttika sects, respectively.

“Please, all of Buddha’s disciples continue keeping calm.… Avoid taking part in other protests involved in the election that affects rights, freedom, tradition, social security and order,” the statement continues.

On Monday, opposition party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha announced that a long-threatened mass demonstration scheduled for Saturday would take the form of a nationwide ceremony of “contemplation and prayer”. The pair called on monks across Cambodia to join the demonstration, saying they expected a number to attend.

Despite the threatening tone of the order, a number of monks yesterday told the Post they would do just that.

Venerable Thach Ha Sam Ang, a resident of Phnom Penh’s Wat Samaky Raingsey, said he considered joining demonstrations to be well within his rights.

“Monks are citizens, so our law has permitted monks to join such affairs automatically. This participation is not in support of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, it is to call for democracy in Cambodia,” Sam Ang said.

His sentiments were echoed by others, who said they would not be cowed by threats.

“The sadness of citizens is the sadness of monks. The sorrow of monks is the sorrow of citizens. Wherever there is oppression, there have been struggles,” venerable Yin Ratanaksotheavy said, adding that he believed there would be little repercussion for monks who joined and that the statement was just intended to intimidate.

If so, however, it had succeeded with some.

Suo Im, a monk who attends Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, said he had intended to join protests before receiving the notice. Now, however, he was too scared.

“The sang prakas [the notice from the Supreme Patriarchs] is very suppressive and a strong warning to us,” he said.

“If any monk in a monastery is involved in a political protest, it will result in not only them being evicted but also the chief monk in that monastery. I wanted to be involved in going and spreading peace with a political party – the CNRP – but I can’t.”

In 1998, monks were a mainstay of the violent political demonstrations that swept the country following the election. They were among the leaders of protests against the results, and at least two were killed. Five years later, Tep Vong barred monks from voting, only to overturn the ban ahead of the 2008 election. In the meantime, however, monks were prohibited from joining protests via a prakas signed by Non Nget and the Minister of Cults and Religions in June 2007.

Then, as now, rights groups and monks lambasted the order as a violation of human rights.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said yesterday that any such prohibition was unconstitutional.

“I don’t think that the [top] monk has the right,” said Sam Oeun, who pointed out that Khmer monks enjoyed a history of making political stands that dated back decades.

“There are many different kinds of Buddhism, and it depends on their own [personal] belief.”

Venerable Im said he had come to a similar conclusion.

“The sang prakas is a violation of monks’ freedom of expression.”

The Supreme Patriarchs could not be reached for comment yesterday. But venerable Seng Sophy, secretary for Tep Vong, defended the statement.

“Buddhism does not prohibit the support of any party, but the framework of Buddhism does not allow monks to join such activities, because it is clumsy – it is contrary to discipline ethics of monks,” Sophy said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, SHANE WORRELL AND SEAN TEEHAN

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