During the recent national election some monks voted and some, under pressure from the top, didn't. The debate within the Sangha over monks' involvement in politics continues.
TWELVE Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh have been threatened with expulsion from their
pagoda after supporting the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in the national elections.
The group's religious leader, a well-known and outspoken Rainsy supporter, was disrobed
and forced to leave after the election. He remains in exile in a province in the
The group, which shares a house at a prominent pagoda in the heart of Phnom Penh,
were told by representatives of Tep Vong, Cambodia's top religious figure and head
of the majority Mohanikay order, that they would be expelled from the wat at the
end of the rainy season, around October. Pagoda leaders have since backed away from
the threat, but the monks remain on edge.
One of the monks in danger of expulsion, who asked to remain anonymous, described
his ordeal to the Post on October 5. He was sitting on his bed in a cramped room
overlooking the pagoda's courtyard.
"We were told that we only had 50 days to leave the pagoda," said the anxious
20-year-old. He said his group's support for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party had
evoked harassment and intimidation from leaders of the pagoda.
A number of monks also told of an attack on a monk who supported the SRP. His door
was hacked down with an axe several months earlier. Although the monk was not harmed-his
mother was inside the room at the time-many of his things were stolen.
"Yes of course I am scared," said the monk. "I have a duty like every
Cambodian citizen to vote. But because I voted, I am made to feel unhappy and I am
under pressure. We are all under pressure."
He said he entered the wat when he was 15 years old because it was his best chance
to earn an education. That is in jeopardy now because of the recent controversy.
If he is expelled, along with his group, they will not be welcome at any wat in the
capital or be able to continue studying at the Buddhist University in Phnom Penh.
But the monks said they had sensed a change in mood since the beginning of October.
They no longer feel the same pressure to leave by the 50-day ultimatum. That was
no surprise to the young monk willing to speak.
"The only reason that we are still allowed to stay in the pagoda is that there
has been word from the Palace that there needs to be peace," he said. "So
now someone has said we are not going to be forced to leave. They got what they wanted
anyway. Our leader is gone forever."
The 12 monks said they are struggling without their "venerable leader",
who they declined to name. Their leader was considered too outspoken when he openly
aligned himself with the Sam Rainsy Party. They said he was their source of inspiration
"We have a new temporary venerable leader, but we feel deeply for our real leader,"
said the monk. "He has done so much for the house. He is not here and this makes
us very worried."
The threats have come from the top of the Buddhist hierarchy. Before the election,
the Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong called on all monks to refrain from voting during
the 2003 national elections.
Chin Channa, 28, a former monk at the wat and a close friend of the exiled leader,
said he witnessed a campaign of intimidation and harassment against supporters of
the opposition party during the months before the national election in July.
"All the Buddhist monks were convened in the main shrine room of the wat,"
he said. "Tep Vong announced that they should not participate in any sort of
protest or demonstration or dispute any decision that goes against the [National
Election Commission] or they would be automatically expelled."
Channa also claimed the monks were asked to sign a statement confirming the election
results were correct and that the vote was held in a peaceful and non-violent manner.
Many refused to sign.
Summarily dismissing a monk, particularly over a political dispute, is a violation
of Buddhist law, says Channa. There are only four infractions that warrant immediate
dismissal from the monkhood: murder, sexual misconduct, serious theft and claiming
to possess supernatural powers.
Buddhist monks are not restricted in their freedom of speech. An infraction other
than the four major offenses is dealt with by a sangha, or committee that investigates
misconduct among monks.
No sangha was set up when the group's venerable leader was stripped of his saffron
robes, the young monks said. Before fleeing the pagoda, Channa said the leader was
interrogated at the Psar Kandal police station and warned to abandon his support
for the political opposition. He refused.
Tep Vong has often disparaged opposition political parties in the past and aligned
himself with the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). He was made the Supreme Patriarch
of the Mohanikay order, the majority Buddhist sect in Cambodia, in 1992 and is a
member of the Throne Council charged with choosing King Norodom Sihanouk's successor.
He served as vice-president of the National Assembly in 1981 and became a monk superior
during the Vietnamese-installed regime in 1988.
Son Chhay, a SRP member of parliament, believes that the threats the 12 monks have
received are a direct abuse of power by Vong.
"Tep Vong's authority is not justified," said Chhay. "He is not a
real monk and is simply an agent for the CPP. It is shameful that he is representing
Cambodia's Buddhist community and it is unacceptable that he is threatening monks
because of their political ideas."
Son Chhay said he will pursue the issue.
"We must have a full investigation," he said. "This is very worrying
and no monk should feel scared of voicing an opinion."
But religious authorities representing Vong have exiled others before, said Channa,
who left two years ago.
"I left the monkhood in 2001 because I was hounded out," he said. "My
life has been threatened by the sangha. After ten years, I bowed down because of
His mistake, he said, was to read the English-language newspapers aloud at the pagoda.
"I used to read The Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post to the older monks
in my house because their eyes were bad," he said. "Soon I was being checked
on even though I always remained politically neutral."
Today, Chin Channa works as a freelance English translator in Phnom Penh. But he
believes Tep Vong's power is as strong as ever. He said the intimidation of the 12
monks and their venerable leader reminded him of the intimidation during the 1998
Democracy Square demonstrations that left more than sixteen dead, some of whom were
"I feel for those young monks who are breaking no laws and simply exercising
their rights," he said. "But they are facing a mighty opposition. They
have lost their leader which is a significant blow to their cause."