There are 53,257 monks across Cambodia, and for the better part of the past two months, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been trying to reach out to as many of them possible.
In publicly broadcast speeches, Hun Sen has repeatedly showered the clergy with praise.
He has ensured his party faithful have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to pagoda construction projects and made sure to personally preside over as many of the inaugurations as possible.
At each opening, there is a reminder – usually implicit, but often explicit: that only the ruling party can financially support their ranks in the quality of life to which they’ve become accustomed.
“Only members of the CPP can provide huge support for the development of the pagodas in the country, therefore they [the opposition] say that the Buddhist monks cast the ballot for CPP only,” he told monks at a speech to inaugurate a pagoda in late April.
Working in tandem with these public demonstrations of generosity and friendship is a far more discreet system of control that has transformed pagodas into spaces where monks choose their words very carefully.
Over its decades in power, the Cambodian People’s Party has learned how to woo the monks to its side: pushing out opposing voices, buying patronage, and installing government-friendly leaders.
Today, the men still considered by many to be the voice of reason across much of the country are almost overwhelmingly stumping for the ruling party. In the pagodas they oversee, they have enforced strict controls on topics of conversation.
Political analyst Chea Vannath told the Post that topics that have now effectively become forbidden in religious sermons include some that were raised by the Buddha himself.
“Even Buddha always preached for social justice. You even cannot repeat what the Buddha said. You cannot say we want social justice, we want social equity. So it is almost impossible for the monks to repeat what Buddha said,” she said.
“Any speech, questionable speech by any monks, will be noticed by the others, and then you will be out or you will be isolated and you have no means to convey the message.”
Instead, Vannath agrees, discussions of subjects with a political nature have become confined to those that portray the CPP favourably.
“It is shown clearly from the top of the hierarchy, [from Great Supreme Patriarch] Tep Vong himself,” she says.
In 2002, Tep Vong, who is also the chief of Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounaloum pagoda, banned monks from voting in the national election the following year, a decision that angered many monks. By the 2008 ballot, however, that decision had been reversed and came with a warning from Vong that monks stay away from political demonstrations and protests.
Many monks in Cambodia argue that the clergy should be completely isolated from partisan politics, but very few are willing to talk about whether, under the current Buddhist hierarchy, they are afforded that separation.
Monks who have previously been vocal about the clergy’s role in politics politely explained to the Post that they were simply not comfortable speaking about the subject or denied having any relevant knowledge.
One former monk who wrote to the Post on the condition of anonymity and who does not think monks should have the right to vote, said he was nevertheless given little choice but to toe the party line.
“Yes, I did vote in the previous elections, and I voted for the CPP because I received threats. [I] voted for the CCP following the chief of the monk’s order,” he wrote.
Partisan politics, the monk felt, had infiltrated the pagodas, leading monks astray from the Buddhist target of “the middle path” and degrading the religion’s reputation.
“Some of monks very much like the politician’s speeches. But for the monks who did not like those speeches, it seems that speech puts pressure on them because the politician just wants to profit from people. But they do not think about the national interest,” he wrote.
It has not just been through speeches that the “pressure” has been applied to Cambodia’s clergy.
After the controversial 1998 election, monks were among the leaders of demonstrations against the results, which came after a bloody series of extrajudicial killings the year before during what is commonly referred to as coup staged by the CPP.
Police shot at 60 monks who were marching in the street and calling for peace. A monk and a civilian died in the incident, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission. Later that year, four monks were listed among 53 subsequent victims of “politically motivated disappearances”, according to a US Embassy cable from the time.
In 2003, after Tep Vong banned monks from voting in the election, the head monk of Wat Lanka, Sam Bunthoeun, was shot dead outside the pagoda in a mysterious case that has never been resolved.
A December 2006 cable from then US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli noted that before he was shot, Bun Thoeun had “encouraged monks to register to vote in defiance of Tep Vong’s ban” and that there had been some “recent history of monks clashing with their political and religious leaders.”
Today, Bunthoeun’s body lies in an opaque refrigerated casket at Wat Oudong. Monks there tell visitors he is being preserved so others can celebrate his achievements. They are reluctant to talk about Bunthoeun’s legacy other than his work related to promoting the meditative school of Buddhism – Vipassanadhura. Some say they are simply not authorised to talk to the media.
Tep Vong, the Great Supreme Patriarch, has made it clear there are topics monks should not publicly discuss.
After he lifted the voting ban in 2006, Vong told monks not to “engage in [political] party solidarity leading to people power”, and urged them to thank the CPP’s senior leaders for saving Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge.
The Great Supreme Patriarch is no stranger to politics himself: in 1981, he was elected vice president of the National Assembly under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the previous incarnation of the CPP.
He was appointed Supreme Patriarch of the dominant Mohanikay sect of Buddhism in the same year, and in 2006 became the first monk to be appointed Great Supreme Patriarch in 150 years. That this rank had previously existed “certainly rules out the idea that the promotion of this rank is of ulterior purpose”, Hun Sen remarked at the time.
Months later, General Hing Bun Heang, commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit, was appointed the Supreme Consultant of a newly formed Monk Assembly, a type of religious court designed to settle Buddhist disputes.
In his 2006 cable, Mussomeli noted that there was “no evidence he has been ordained and served as a monk”.
“Hing Bun Heang’s affiliation to it is disturbing. We concur with sources who believe that the CPP intends to keep firm control over potential political agitation within the main Buddhist religious order like all other important national institutions in Cambodia,” he wrote.
The tactic is a clever one. The more than 4,500 pagodas in Cambodia form the nucleus of village life (about 95 per cent of the population is Buddhist).
Access to them allows politicians to communicate through a prism of moral purity, regardless of the sometimes less-than-stellar reputations of local party officials.
Human Rights Party President Son Soubert, who is also a political analyst, calls the tactic a “sinful” act that forces monks into a political realm, even if they resent it.
“This is a new trend, the political sphere tried to gain something from the religious sphere, because especially in the rural area, the monks still have moral prestige and social prestige most of the time and so political people understand that,” he said.
“It’s merit-making when he [Hun Sen] inaugurates a temple. When he does, even if the people don’t want him, they can’t refuse.”
In his 2001 essay Buddhist Sangha Groupings in Cambodia, Ian Harris, a professor of Buddhism studies at the University of Cumbria, outlined another way the CPP ensure monasteries followed the party line by appointing management committees.
“Each monastery has such a body consisting of a majority of lay members (achar), many of whom are ex-monks. In the early PRK period, these placemen specifically ensured that a proportion of donations to the monastery were redirected to socially useful purposes such as hospitals, roads, schools, etc.,” Harris wrote.
“More recently they have had a significant impact on the stifling of dissent, particularly given the CPP-oriented individuals often appointed.”
Article 15 of Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties forbids parties from organising their organisational structure inside religious bodies.
Since the heady days of 1998, few monks now dare speak out about social injustices while faced with the threat of defrocking or being banned from pagodas.
Few have demonstrated that point more clearly than a student of Bunthoeun’s: Luon Sovath. The high-profile monk has spent years documenting human rights abuses in a move that frequently pits him against authorities.
Sovath, who was banned from all pagodas in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in 2011 by Supreme Patriarch Ngon Nget after attending a land rights protest, said that though monks today continue to talk about political sensitive issues quietly with friends, they do not dare do so inside the pagodas. Those who have spoken out face threats, such as the 10 university students and five monks at Wat Ounalom who were threatened with eviction in 2011 if they did not cease contact with Sovath.
And so it is perhaps unsurprising that few monks dare publicly raise sensitive issues that could hurt the agenda of one particular party. Though they number only in the tens of thousands, their ability to reach the ears of millions has turned them into a highly valued piece of political capital, said Chea Vannath.
“I feel that CPP is working very hard not to overlook anything [for the election], especially religion. They just want to be well prepared.”