‘Protest pagoda’ under scrutiny

Monks have their documents checked during an inspection at the Samaki Rainsy pagoda
Monks have their documents checked during an inspection at the Samaki Rainsy pagoda yesterday in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. Pha Lina

‘Protest pagoda’ under scrutiny

Dozens of police and municipal authorities descended upon Samaki Rainsy pagoda yesterday for an investigation into allegations of illegal activity at the complex, whose monks have been fixtures at protests associated with land rights advocates and the opposition party, among other causes.

Throngs of onlookers recording videos on smartphones and tablets gathered around Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Khuong Sreng and the pagoda’s acting chief monk, Thach Hasam-Ang, as the former inspected documents of each of the approximately 50 monks living there.

Sreng maintained that the inquiry was in response to reports of intimidation of monks, claims made after 17-year-old monk Ly Toeng allegedly murdered deputy chief monk Thach Khan in January following an argument.

“This inspection focuses on the irregularities that happened last month with the death of the monk and the complaint submitted related to threatening,” Sreng said at the pagoda yesterday. “We are not here to destroy the pagoda.”

Many, however, were not convinced.

“This pagoda is not supporting the ruling party,” said Nay Vanda, deputy head of human rights for rights group Adhoc. “So the municipal authorities, they find a reason to come here and take control.”

The probe of the pagoda – which is not registered with the Ministry of Cults and Religion – came after several monks living there complained to City Hall and police that some monks were violently intimidating others, said Sot Chhaya, 46, one of the monks who signed the complaints.

Chhaya, who moved to the pagoda on January 1, said his father had established it. Four monks beat and slashed him with a knife on January 2, fearing Chhaya was trying to seize control, he said.

Seven other monks signed on to his complaint, Chhaya said. He expected the complaint would result in an opportunity for him to speak directly with authorities about his personal disputes within the pagoda, he said. However, the ensuing scrutiny of the pagoda’s legitimacy has led others there to defame him and spread rumours that he made false allegations, he said.

But even Chhaya himself noted that there may have been other motivations behind the inspection.

“I did not say that anyone was trying to start an anti-government group, or storing illegal weapons,” Chhaya said, insisting that City Hall was overreacting to the complaints, possibly for their own reasons.

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Khuong Sreng
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Khuong Sreng (centre) walks through the grounds of Samaki Rainsy pagoda yesterday in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. Pha Lina

Several people yesterday considered Chhaya an enemy of the small community, with one person there telling reporters not to listen to him.

Another pagoda resident, Phan Thoun, 41, moved to Samaki Rainsy five months ago. He and others involved in a Preah Vihear province land dispute have been staying there while they petition embassies and government ministries to end their conflict.

From what he heard, Thoun said, Chhaya and at least one other monk alleged the pagoda stored illegal weapons and is a breeding ground for a growing dissident group.

Though Deputy Governor Sreng wasn’t looking for weapons yesterday, he did find some pagoda documents stamped with fake rubber stamps, rather than official ones. The practice, Hasam-Ang said, will end.

Vanda of Adhoc nevertheless said yesterday that City Hall had notions that the activist pagoda was trying to begin a revolution. The idea, he added, is absurd.

“[City Hall officials] say ‘revolution’; that’s a strong word,” Vanda said. “How can you have a revolution with no weapons?”

But, despite announcing the initiation of an investigation into the pagoda’s alleged anti-government leanings, among other things, Phnom Penh municipal spokesman Long Dimanche yesterday said that he never suggested the pagoda was trying to secede from the Kingdom’s government. If that was suspected, the “revolution” would be quickly stamped out.

“I have never mentioned secession before,” Dimanche said. “If I believed it to be a seccesion area, it would be destroyed.”

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