PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — During Pchum Ben, a Cambodian religious holiday that came to a close last week, Venerable Keo Somaly got up before dawn.
By 5 a.m. each day, the 32-year-old monk was dressed in his saffron robe and chanting prayers. Not long after, with the sun still hanging low in the sky, he was ready to talk politics.
Somaly is part of a growing but difficult to quantify network of monks who are publicly showing their discontent with the results of July’s national elections, which many Cambodians see as deeply flawed, as voiced during an opposition party congress attended by thousands here this weekend.
As someone who receives alms and donations, Somaly sees this dissent as his duty, even if the top-ranking monks see it the other way around.
“We’ve been eating our people’s food, and now our people, our nation, is experiencing injustice, so we can stand and help them,” he said, sitting on a couch inside a pagoda near the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh.
“Both the monks and the people are waking up now,” he said.
Somaly, who wears glasses and is virtually attached to his smartphone, detailed some of his recent exploits. In September, he and dozens of monks showed up outside the Royal Palace to petition King Norodom Sihamoni to delay the opening of parliament. He has cajoled others to join rallies via Facebook, and attended, by his count, 10 politically oriented demonstrations.
One of his most important roles, however, has been as a sort of mediator for clergy who run afoul of religious and local authorities. In a recent case, he said, he successfully reconciled two monks who came to blows over politics.
Somaly puts the numbers of like-minded monks at 1,000 in Phnom Penh, and 4,000 across the country, with networks in four provinces. Monks affiliated with Somaly, monks with other groups or acting on their own are defying orders from the upper echelon to stay away from protests, braving security forces and risking retaliation. Amid a political crisis, they are choosing sides.
Buddhism in the background
While most Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism, and the religion has been a source of guidance and national identity, political engagement has taken on different forms throughout the country’s troubled history.
During the French protectorate, which lasted from the mid-19th century until Cambodian independence in 1953, Buddhism and anti-colonial movements in Cambodia weren’t as closely linked as in Burma and Sri Lanka, according to John Marston, a professor at the Center for Asian and African Studies of El Colegio de México in Mexico City.
“Generally, I would say, monks themselves were not so involved in the ‘political’ side of things” Marston said in an email. The exception was the so-called “Umbrella War” demonstration in the early 1940s, when monks openly opposed French colonial authorities during the Japanese occupation of the country.
“Of course,” he added, “there is always going to be a certain implicit connection between religion and politics.”
From 1975 to 1979, under the communist Khmer Rouge, monks were defrocked, targeted and killed. Religion had no use in an agrarian state revolving around rice production. Temples were turned into utilitarian storage spaces or prisons, and the head of the Buddhist community was executed.
After the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, the Vietnamese-backed regime that installed Hun Sen as prime minister six years later controlled and then cultivated the “sangha,” or Buddhist community. Around the time the Vietnamese were preparing to withdrawal in the late 1980s, Buddhism was made Cambodia’s official state religion.
Hun Sen stuck around for a while. Last month, his enduring, 28-year reign lived to see another five-year term when election officials formally announced that the Cambodian People’s Party had won 68 out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly.
With the remaining 55 positions, or almost double what it had before, the newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party should have been celebrating. But the results didn’t differ from preliminary numbers that trickled out on July 28, election night; numbers that the CNRP had already dismissed based on allegations of ghost voting, document fudging, and voter disenfranchisement.
Since the election, the CNRP has held a series of mass demonstrations. Meanwhile, negotiations with the ruling CPP party have yielded little. On September 23, the opposition boycotted the opening session of parliament and held their own ceremony at the 12th-century Angkor Wat temple on the other side of the country.
Monks observing the impasse had a decision to make: take part or stay out. Few would criticize them for remaining neutral and above the petty fray of politics. The top religious leaders in the country endorsed this stance in a statement last month that forbade attendance at demonstrations.
The message was backed by, among others, Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, who has been aligned with members of the ruling party since the early 1980s. Monks with opposition leanings view the religious leader as little more than an extension of those in power.
The statement seemed to promote a kind of Orwellian situation within pagodas, encouraging informing on others and stipulating that, inside pagodas, people “must cooperate with monk officers to stop any activities that are against the religious and state laws. When having enough evidence of any unofficial activities and cases [they] must report immediately to the nearest police officers and authorities.”
Monks listened closely, but not all toed the line.
“I have never been physically attacked, but the statement or announcement from the patriarch is one that threatens the monks. It banned the monks from speaking up to find justice and peace for the nation,” said Venerable Khoem Sophea, 33. “After that, the chief of each monastery convenes to tell his followers not to attend any rallies. It is a kind of putting pressure on monks. However, we still attend the demonstration because we want justice, although we feel afraid and worried about our security.”
Ian Harris, a historian of Cambodian Buddhism, wrote in a 2001 paper that as the Vietnamese prepped to depart Cambodia in 1989, “Hun Sen apologized for earlier ‘mistakes’ in the treatment of Buddhism and conspicuous acts of Buddhist piety by party dignitaries started to be widely reported.”
It was around this time that one of Cambodia’s most famous proponents of “engaged Buddhism,” Maha Ghosananda, who died in 2007, began to lead annual peace marches across the country. Dubbed “Cambodia’s Gandhi” by the media and “Buddha of the Battlefields” in a biography, Ghosananda walked against war, landmines and other scourges. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
But historians say that the UN-backed elections in 1993, when monks were granted the vote for the first time, created a new sort of politicization.
Like many noble ideas outlined in the UN blueprint for Cambodia, suffrage for monks didn’t work out as planned, and the problem flared up every five years when national elections rolled around.
Not long after the 1998 poll, security forces brutally cracked down on a demonstration of monks.In the next election year, 2003, Sam Bunthoeun, a well-known Buddhist figure, was gunned down outside Wat Langka in Phnom Penh. The case is still unsolved.
Just before the 2003 elections, the religious authorities stripped monks of their voting rights. But ahead of the 2008 poll, they withdrew the order. This flip-flopping caused some confusion.
“Strangely, we are allowed to vote, but banned from even attending the non-violent rallies,” said Venerable Yuth Thearin, 25.
This year’s election wasn’t a smooth one for Thearin. He says he was blocked from voting on election day because of a bureaucratic screw-up in which his gender was listed on official polling station forms as “female.”
Thearin also claims that, in July, when the chief monk at his pagoda on the outskirts of Phnom Penh learned of his support for the opposition party, he kicked him out.
“I am very upset and furious. Pagodas are built for monks to stay regardless of political tendency. I was forced to leave at night, but I locked my room and stayed inside and I left the next morning, otherwise my chief monk would call the police to arrest me,” said Thearin, who was cooling down with family over the Pchum Ben holiday.
“For the next election, we will attend any demonstrations or rallies if there are irregularities like this time again,” he said.
At least one monk has gone to extremes to send a message. Towards the end of a three-day, opposition party demonstration in mid-September, a man identified as Venerable Sok Syna took the stage and attempted to light himself on fire, but was thwarted by security and other monks in the vicinity, according to reports.
Acts like these stand out. But it’s difficult to say how much influence they’ll have on the bigger picture. Nearly half of Cambodia’s National Assembly is still refusing to be part of the government. In any event, the monks are causing a stir within the sangha, and reviving the debate about how large a role they should play in politics.
For Somaly, who on Wednesday morning was about to leave his pagoda to help settle yet another political dispute, the question is an easy one.
“It is not ‘should.’ Monks ‘must’ be in politics. Buddha was the father of democracy,” he said. “Why shouldn’t monks, Buddha’s followers, join in?”