In a rare public demonstration tolerated by police, some 50 ethnic Khmer monks from Vietnam protested near the Vietnamese Embassy on Tuesday morning against the alleged defrocking of nine monks following anti-government protests in southern Vietnam.
More than 50 plain-clothed and intervention police officers, some armed with AK-47 rifles and tear gas, surrounded the monks for much of the four-hour protest, which coincided with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet’s arrival in Cambodia on Tuesday.
Son Hai, a 26-year-old monk who claimed he recently fled Vietnam, said the monks timed their protest with the president’s two-day visit to attract maximum attention.
“We want to meet [Nguyen Minh Triet] face-to-face and ask him to stop defrocking monks and pressuring the Khmer Kampuchea Krom,” he said.
The loss of Kampuchea Krom, the territory which is nowadays southern Vietnam but was formally part of the Khmer empire, is a highly emotive issue for many Cambodians while some members of the Khmer Krom community, ethnic Khmers living in southern Vietnam, periodically claim discrimination and persecution by Vietnamese authorities.
Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam said he has not been informed of the defrocking of monks, adding that the allegation seemed unlikely.
“The Vietnamese government never defrocks any Khmer Krom monks,” he said. “The government respects religious rights.”
He also said the demonstration would not affect relations between the two countries.
The protest started when 10 monks arrived by motorbike taxi at the embassy at 8:30 am, but police told them to walk north along Monivong Boulevard, where they joined some 40 more monks at the intersection with Mao Tse Tung Boulevard.
The monks then sat down near the intersection, located around 70 meters from the embassy, and refused to move. Police confiscated two pro-Khmer Krom banners though no one was arrested.
At around 9:20 am, Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth unsuccessfully ordered the monks to return to their pagodas, saying they didn’t have permission to protest.
“For the country and [King Norodom Sihamoni’s] reputation, I must protect the King’s guest,” he said of the visiting Vietnamese leader. “If something happens, [Vietnamese officials] would not return to Cambodia again.”
At about 11:30 am, plainclothes police tried to force the monks onto buses, shoving some monks in the process.
Both sides pushed each other and shouted loudly, and several monks said they would sacrifice their lives rather than go with the police.
At around 12:30 pm, the monks finally agreed to return to their pagodas with UN and Licadho officials in two separate trucks as police stood by.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said he was unaware of the protest and declined further comment.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith could not be reached for comment.
Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said she was happy there had been no violence, but accused police of a “gross show of force” in dealing with the monks.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said it seemed “a bit strange” that the government had allowed the protest to occur given its previous track record on blocking public demonstrations.
The government likely allowed the monks’ protest to avoid being seen to be under the influence of Vietnamese authorities, he said.
Sao Chanthol, chief monk at Wat Langka, said such protests were against Buddhist discipline, and that some of his monks had participated. If the monks continue to hold demonstrations, he warned, he will defrock them.
(Additional reporting by Emily Lodish.)