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Monks behaving badly

As chief of Buddist moral law, Hou Chhivneath plays a key role in decisions about defrocking.
As chief of Buddhist moral law, Hou Chhivneath plays a key role in decisions about defrocking. Kimberley McCosker

Monks behaving badly

When the temptations of modern life prove too much for some monks, the police, government and clergy all have a role in upholding the reputation of Buddhism in the Kingdom

As the sun set over the Royal Palace on Tuesday evening, the lawn in front was bustling with playing children, vendors selling food, and groups of monks talking and taking in the changing colour of the sky. Nearby sat Pao Sun, 44, who was resting as the heat of the day began to break.

“We don’t respect the monk as a person; we respect the clothes he wears because it represents Buddha,” Sun said when asked about the monks, reflecting the sentiments of many ordinary Cambodians. “Monks are normal people, not Buddha, and the Buddhist monks just come to sit here like normal people.”

When monks drink alcohol, dance with women, or indulge in other forbidden pleasure-seeking activities they demonstrate their human fallibility. And that’s when they lose the right to wear the robes, in a process known as defrocking.

For example in March, police in Kampong Cham province arrested four monks who were drinking and dancing with women at a karaoke parlour. They were tipped off by concerned patrons, who noticed the monks’ characteristic shaved heads. The police then sent the monks back to their pagoda for discipline.

If a monk is defrocked, he cannot transfer to a different pagoda.
If a monk is defrocked, he cannot transfer to a different pagoda. Kimberley McCosker

Phnom Penh’s chief monk of Vinaya Pitaka (Buddhist moral law), Hou Chhivneath, said senior monastic officials worked closely with police in cases of monks suspected of criminal or religious offences.

Monks could not be tried in court, Chhivneath said, but if there was enough evidence that they violated Cambodia’s criminal code, police could independently defrock monks without approval from the clergy.

“The police and the civil authority can arrest the monks and send them court to have them forcefully defrocked if they have enough proof,” Chhivneath said. “But in the case of suspicion that the monks violated religous laws and orders, the civil authority and police must consult or bring the case to the Sangha [monastic order], so that the Sangha can solve the issue including [possible] defrocking.”

National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said this was a misunderstanding. Police had the right to arrest monks, but following proper procedure, they must call a monastic official to defrock them before sending them to court. Active monks could not be charged with a crime in court, he said.

However, Chantharith said he was not aware of a case where a Buddhist official had refused a police request to defrock a monk.

“[For] anyone, not only the monk, if they committed a crime, the police have the right to arrest and detain,” Chantharith said.

[Police] must get the upper level of the monks who have the right to defrock, and after that they detain the monk.”

Police investigated complaints that monks had committed religious, not criminal, transgressions, he said. However, the number of cases like the Kampong Cham monks arrested at a KTV parlour was “very few”.

The Ministry of Cult and Religion – which is independent of the Buddhist clergy – does not have the right to defrock a monk, but in some cases they work alongside monk superiors and “compromise” a monk’s punishment for failing to uphold Buddhist values, said Srey Sopeak, chairman of the ministry’s Kampong Cham bureau.

Hun Porleang in his pagoda.
Hun Porleang in his pagoda. Kimberley McCosker

Drinking and “hugging women”, as the four monks arrested in March were doing, were not among the four offences that immediately lead to defrocking, which are murder, sexual intercourse, stealing or falsely claiming to possess special spiritual powers. However, all four had since left the monkhood.

Sopeak said the monks defrocked themselves when they removed their robes to wear civilian clothing at the KTV bar. Also, Sopeak said, he prefers to err on the side of forcing monks out of the monkhood for infractions that do not automatically warrant defrocking, because he fears they may transfer to a different pagoda and continue to break the rules.

“If [monks] only drink alcohol or drive a car or sing karaoke, in Buddhist law, the monk is not guilty enough to defrock,” Sopeak said. “But we fear if a monk leaves one pagoda and goes to another, then he will do it again, so we request the pagoda chiefs to defrock that monk.”

Even when the police or government officials are not involved, the defrocking process works much like criminal trials in the civilian world, Wat Sras Chak senior monk Bun Chhun explained. Monks are given the chance to defend themselves, and may appeal a defrocking to the district, provincial and national level within the clergy, he said.

Though tempted to enjoy a cold beer or a night out singing karaoke, rank-and-file monks who spoke with the Post said that they agreed with the police and the Ministry of Cult and Religion’s enforcement of monk laws.

Hun Porleang, a monk at Outara Vatey pagoda, said the authorities sometimes had monks defrocked for offences that would not necessarily call for the monk’s dismissal. But, in most cases he has heard of, Porleang believes that the monk in question should voluntarily defrock, since he has degraded the clergy’s image.

“A monk who is guilty of even drinking alcohol and singing karaoke should defrock himself to protect the cultural [respect] of Buddhism in Cambodia,” he said.

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