Monks Debate Their Right to the Ballot Box

To vote or not to vote.

For many of Cambodia’s saffron-robed Buddhist monks, it’s a difficult question.

On one hand, activism among monks has a long tradition, from helping create a strong Khmer national identity during colonial rule, to leading the drive for independence in the 20th century, to protesting with the urban and rural poor in their land rights battles.

—Commune Election 2017—

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Monks ride in the back of a truck with CNRP supporters during a rally in Phnom Penh on Sunday for the upcoming commune elections. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

On the other hand, as one of Cambodia’s top monks, Tep Vong has repeatedly said that monks should be a neutral force in an effort to protect the national religion’s hallowed image.

At Wat Langka, one of Phnom Penh’s oldest pagodas, near Independence Monument, a respected veteran monk said he had never voted in his birth country.

At first, Yos Hut said it was not a monk’s place to participate in election activities. Later in the conversation, however, he admitted that he had voted in France, where he also holds citizenship, because it was simple compared to the “very complicated” process in Cambodia.

“I encourage monks to teach people about these things, but I don’t oppose monks voting,” he said. “Monks have the role of teacher—they must teach everyone about politics, economics, and so on.”

Then he added: “Teach them to practice democracy.”

When four monks were arrested after attending an opposition rally in Oddar Meanchey province last week, they—and the officers who detained them—were following a well-trodden path. Monks have regularly been appearing at political rallies in the run-up to the June 4 commune elections, but their participation is not always welcome.

Kong Ratanak Saray, first deputy chief monk at Wat Samakki Raingsey in Phnom Penh’s outer Meanchey district, which has gained a reputation for housing land dispute protesters and rights activists visiting from the provinces, said on Monday that some monks have been jailed after publicly supporting the opposition.

He said two monks of Khmer Krom ethnicity—a marginalized group of Cambodians from southern Vietnam—had been accused two years ago of using drugs at nearby Ang Taminh pagoda after participating in opposition activism.

“Previously, those monks engaged in political activities with the CNRP, went to observe the situation at the Vietnamese border and protested with other people,” he said.

“All these kinds of issues, what can we do? Where is the justice? Who can we seek justice from? Out of nowhere, two monks were arrested and defrocked.”

Despite testing negative for drug use, the pair were forced to thumbprint “confessions,” and were later defrocked, he said.

Authorities might seek to control monks’ political activity due to the monkhood’s strong influence on society, Kong Ratanak Saray said.

“Any country that believes in Buddhism, they believe and respect monks since previous generations,” he said. “Monks play a very important role in society, so politicians want monks to participate in their campaigns.”

Elizabeth Becker, a U.S. journalist and academic who has written extensively about Cambodia, including a 150-year-history of monks in politics in “When the War Was Over,” agreed that authorities had something to gain in controlling the monkhood.

“The fact that Buddhism is the official religion may seem a formality but it is not. The faith is deeply entwined in the country’s culture,” she said in an email.

“Cambodia’s monks of today have inherited centuries of authority, which is one reason the government is anxious to control their influence in the upcoming election,” she said.

Luon Sovath, a prominent activist monk who won the 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, said in an interview with The Cambodia Daily last year that government officials urging monks to remain out of politics were wrong and “do not know what Buddhism is.”

He said monks had been active “in social work to protect land, tradition, nation, language [and] culture,” including the fight for independence from France, since “ancient times.”

After going through the education system French colonialists set up in the country after taking over in the 1800s, monks led the way in fomenting the development of a strong Khmer national identity. They were also the leaders of the independence movement in the 20th century, and the arrests of highly revered monks during this time spurred mass protests in the country. When the late King Norodom Sihanouk declared independence from France in 1953, he was speaking after decades of passionate colonial opposition from his country’s monkhood.

Tep Vong, the Great Supreme Patriarch of the Mohanikaya sect of Buddhism, has repeatedly called for monks to be banned from registering to vote and from voting in elections. And National Election Committee (NEC) President Sik Bunhok has said he believes monks should not even be allowed to observe elections.

“Monks are statesmen for all Cambodians, in which they should stay neutral, as the duty of electoral observation might lead to bias and mistakes,” Mr. Bunhok said during the launch of a computerized registration system for a new national voter list in August.

But two monks at an observer training workshop held last month by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) said it was their duty as monks to help monitor Sunday’s vote.

Lonh Sokchea, 29, from Battambang province, said he attended the training on behalf of Buddhism for Peace, an NGO founded by But Buntenh, another of the country’s most prominent activist monks and also the founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, which has gained attention for its environmentalism.

The organization has registered all 40 of its monks to monitor the election campaign period and Election Day, he said.

Lonh Sokchea said he registered as an observer because it was his duty as a Buddhist and as a citizen of Cambodia to help ensure free and fair elections.

“It is the principle of Buddhism. Buddha wanted humans to live in peace and in dignity,” he said. “I am a monk of Cambodia. I need to help for the good of the people…. We need to protect the truth on elections in Cambodia.”

Buddhism’s core values align with democracy, he said.

“The principle of Buddhism supports the democratic system, because it believes in justice, fairness and dignity of people,” he said. “Human rights are written in [our] laws.”

Another Buddhism for Peace member, 38-year-old Beth Vanna, said it would be his second time monitoring elections when he participates in observing the vote this Sunday.

Brak Sao, the first deputy chief monk at a pagoda in Kandal province’s Lvea Em district, said in an interview last week that he had voted in elections twice since turning 18, the legal voting age. Last year, the 25-year-old monk re-registered in the new computerized system.

“I went to register to vote, and the election officers, they encouraged all monks to vote,” he said.

He said he believed that about 90 percent of the country’s monks had registered to vote, “based on monkhood records,” though this figure could not be verified by senior members of the monkhood.

Non Nget, the Supreme Patriarch of the Mohanikaya sect—one of the top positions in the monkhood—and Khim Sorm, chief of the monkhood in Phnom Penh, both said they did not know the number of monk voters.

Khim Sorm said there are more than 56,000 monks in the country. So if Brak Sao’s claim is correct, more than 50,000 monks will be heading to the polls this weekend, constituting 0.63 percent of enrolled voters.

In December, “monks from both sects [Mohanikaya and Dhammayudh] made requests to the NEC to not allow monks to vote,” Khim Sorm said, continuing a long-held position by the sects. “We never heard anything back.”

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea responded to reporters’ questions about the senior monk’s position by stating “there is no law preventing monks from voting.”

Yet not all monks are eager to exercise their democratic right.

A monk sitting on some steps inside Phnom Penh’s central Wat Ounalom—home base for Tep Vong, who was a senior member of the CPP in the 1980s—said he was not registered to vote.

“Choosing between parties conflicts me,” said the monk, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals at his pagoda. “Politics is very hard right now.”

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