The Ministry of Cults and Religion and other relevant stakeholders are expediting their work on drafting a Law on Religion in Cambodia with the intention to ban monks from participating in political protests.

However, civil society organisations and opposition parties and politicians are objecting to this change, saying the law must not infringe upon the liberties granted to all citizens – including monks – by the Constitution.

Ministry spokesman Seng Somony told The Post on December 8 that a working group has been working on an amended draft law on religion since 2013, but the work is not yet complete.

He said the working group is now in the consultation process and holding workshops to get input from stakeholders before finalising the text of the law.

Somony said religion minister Chhit Sokhon had already submitted copies of the draft law to the legal experts at relevant institutions such as the ministries of Justice and Interior and the Consultation Committee of the National Assembly and Senate in order to get their input and accelerate the legislative process so that the law will be in effect prior to the upcoming election in June.

“[Sokhon] held an inter-religion workshop with all of the religious leaders in Cambodia and relevant officials from the ministry and from the provincial administrations to get their input.

“The local officials and religious leaders provided us with many valuable insights into various aspects of the draft law and the committee will use that input to make further improvements before the next step,” he said.

According to Somony, the goal of this law is to protect all religions in Cambodia and harmonise them in order to strengthen and expand the effectiveness of religious practices – especially Buddhism – which is the state religion as established by the Constitution.

The draft law currently comprises 13 chapters with 54 articles and the working group says it fully intends that it be promulgated prior to the 2022 commune council elections.

The draft law’s Article 35 – recently posted to social media – states: “Buddhist monks who intentionally take part in political protests, strikes, riots or organised activity against any political party will be sentenced to a prison term of seven to 15 years, not including other applicable punishments as stated in the Criminal Code.”

Somony claimed that the contents of the leaked articles were drafts only and would likely undergo further changes before the law is passed to the legislature.

He said the working group will take into consideration the concerns of different religions in their discussions but the contents of the law will ultimately have to be in line with the Constitution as well as the existing Law on Peaceful Demonstrations.

Monks participating in a political demonstration in the capital. POST STAFF

Ou Chanrath, a former lawmaker of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and founder of the new Cambodian Reform Party (CRP), said the proposed changes must not affect the basic rights of any individual, monks included.

He said any legitimate constitutional law must preserve people’s basic rights including freedom of expression, whether they are social or political in nature.

“I think the law should be more open. We already know that religion plays many important roles in our society. Monks or clergy are typically educated and most of them have a good grasp of the issues that concern the nation. Throughout our history many of our leaders have been born from the ranks of our monks,” he said

Cambodian Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun agreed, telling The Post that the 1993 Constitution states that the Kingdom is a multi-party democracy that respects human rights in line with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and all of the above ensures that all Cambodians have inalienable civil and political rights, even monks.

“The monks are also citizens of our country whether or not they have the status of monkhood. They should have the right to participate in social and political events. They should also have the right to support what they believe in and protest what they disagree with through public demonstrations and through voting.

“As stated above, if we ban monks from expressing their views on any and all issues – including speaking out against any political party – that stands against the foundations of Cambodian law.

“If this draft article 35 goes into effect, it will do so in clear violation of our Constitution and the universal declaration of human rights,” he said.

Asked about the purpose of punishing monks with lengthy prison terms merely for taking part in political activities, Somony said the law intends to protect the values of Buddhism so that the religion does not lose the respect of its followers.

He observed that there were physical clashes that have resulted from past protests, which is unseemly for monks. He also said that monks should be viewed as neutral and unbiased so that all Buddhists feel welcome at religious events and the harsh punishment would keep monks away from large crowds, which is also a violation of Buddhist discipline.

“If the monks take part in protests and strikes, they will stir up contempt against this or that person or party and monks showing anger and cursing other people is just not suitable.

“Some protests involve fighting – like what we witnessed [on Veng Sreng street] in Stung Meanchey when some monks threw rocks at people – which was totally improper and it damaged the public’s respect for the monkhood,” he said.

Somony also explained that in addition to protecting Buddhism, the law will ensure that people with bad intentions do not hide behind Buddhism or use it as a shield while attempting to undermine and sabotage the state and its religion.

“The precise punishments will be discussed further and I’m confident that the committee will set out penalties that are appropriate and fair and the sentences must then be approved by the justice ministry for the final draft,” he said.