Workers from the Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc factory protest the detention of two Buddhist monks outside the Chom Chao commune office in Por Sen Chey district, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
Two monks, one a septuagenarian, the other a teenager, were detained and questioned by authorities yesterday after blessing striking garment workers at a Phnom Penh factory.
Min Seng, 78, a monk at Phum Thmey pagoda in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, said he and fellow monk Eta Toul, 18, were detained after being invited to perform a 20-minute water blessing for workers from the Yakjin garment factory, in the capital’s Dangkor district.
“I did not know it was going to be a protest,” Seng said.
As the two monks left the factory in a tuk-tuk, a police officer had physically detained them and taken them to the Por Sen Chey district police station, Seng said.
“I felt scared and wondered why they were questioning me like this. I was just blessing people in the usual Buddhist way,” he said. Toul declined to speak with reporters.
Phan Phern, a police chief in Por Sen Chey district, denied the monks had been arrested.
“We questioned the monks. We just wanted to find out if they were actually monks,” he said. “We wanted to ask their intentions. The authority is not discriminating against them.”
Although the monks were released after 20 minutes, their detainment outraged the 2,000 workers, many of whom moved their protest to the police station in support of the two men.
“Those monks are helping Cambodian people who need them,” Um Visal, labour dispute resolution officer at Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said.
The chief at the monks’ pagoda, who did not give his name, was also unimpressed with the arrests – but his frustrations were directed at the monks themselves.
“The monks should not bless anyone involved in a protest. Before leaving the pagoda to bless anyone, monks should inform their chief monk. If they want to be involved in any protest or politics, they should defrock,” he said.
Those at the top of Cambodia’s Buddhist establishment have made it clear they do not want their monks involved in political activism or displays of political dissent.
In an example of how far they are willing to go to clamp down on dissenters, Venerable Luon Sovath – an award-winning human rights activist who has railed against land evictions – has been banned from pagodas, detained at protests and allegedly forced by Cambodia’s Supreme Patriarch of Monks Nun Nget to sign an “agreement” not to protest anymore.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said yesterday he was concerned at how tightly controlled pagodas and the monks in them were becoming.
“The pagodas are not separate from the state itself,” he said. “Officials are pretty heavy-handed in their control of the pagodas.”
The Buddhist hierarchy often claimed it was trying to keep monks out of politics, Virak added, but their silencing was the government’s way of keeping them out of opposition politics.
“Officers involved are policing morale,” Virak said, adding they were becoming involved in issues that weren’t criminal matters.
“It’s a symbol of the level of control [the government] has on religion,” Virak said, adding that political support and money were motivators in keeping this control.
Monks being kept silent was not something entrenched in Buddhism, Venerable Thorn Vandong, executive director and founder of NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action, said.
“Buddhism is human rights,” he said.
“At the moment, many poor communities are vulnerable and being moved by the rich far away from our homes. We have to help these people.”
Vandong said he was part of a group of monks actively fighting corruption in his community in Kampong Cham.
Phon Davy, a department director at the Ministry of Cult and Religion, declined to comment, while Nun Nget and a Ministry of Interior spokesman were not available.