Although his head is shorn and he is draped in saffron, Loun Sovath is no ordinary monk.
For one thing, he is homeless, banned from living in pagodas in Phnom Penh and his home province of Siem Reap. He has been cursed at, arrested, harassed and threatened with defrocking due to his activism on behalf of Cambodia’s landless and disenfranchised.
Born in Siem Reap province’s Chi Kreng district, 31-year-old Loun Sovath, who has been a monk for more than 20 years, became interested in social justice following a fatal clash between Chi Kreng villagers and authorities over a land dispute in 2009, during which his uncle and several other protesting villagers were shot.
Since then, he has stood with and walked alongside land protesters, offering blessings and documenting meetings and protests alike with his small video camera. But this has made Loun Sovath a pariah in the eyes of the authorities and the Buddhist clergy, and moves have been made to muzzle his influence.
In April, after Loun Sovath was involved in a series of protests supporting villagers in Boeng Kak lake and their bid to secure land titles, Supreme Buddhist Patriarch Non Nget issued a written directive banning pagodas in Phnom Penh from offering Loun Sovath their customary hospitality.
Last month, the provincial monk chief in Siem Reap province issued a similar order after Loun Sovath conducted a Buddhist ceremony for Chi Kreng land protesters who had just been released from prison. Religious authorities there said he was banned for “provoking a dispute between the people and authorities.”
And yesterday, Loun Sovath removed his belongings from Wat Ounalom pagoda in Phnom Penh at the request of his friends, who say they have been threatened by senior religious authorities with eviction if they do not break contact with the outspoken, socially conscious monk.
As Loun Sovath began to clear his things from Wat Ounalom, huge piles of books fell with a thud onto his bed. Among them was a copy of “Cambodia: Freedoms of Expression, Association and Assembly—A Shrinking Space,” by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. Another was a copy of “New Protection Manual for Human Rights Defenders.”
“I have no plans for where to go after leaving. I’m just taking my stuff today to make it safe for the students and my friends,” Loun Sovath said in an interview with The Cambodia Daily.
Loun Sovath’s friends and colleagues at Wat Ounalom stayed in their rooms crying as he moved out.
A short while later, several residents of Boeng Kak lake filed into the small, musty room to help their friend move out. Some wept as they shoveled his belongings—mainly books, now strewn across the bed—into rice sacks and loaded them into a waiting tuk-tuk. Several monks stood by watching silently, seemingly dumbstruck. They refused to discuss Loun Sovath’s eviction with reporters.
Outside the pagoda, amid the weeping Boeng Kak villagers, Loun Sovath sat quietly amid the hubbub, rubbing the head of a dog sitting at his feet.
Boeng Kak resident Kong Chantha, 44, said she was unwavering in her support of the activist monk.
“They evicted the Venerable Loun Sovath because they wanted to erase Buddhism. He just wants to help, because people are living in injustice from powerful people,” Ms Chantha shouted in a voice raw from crying.
Am Sam Ath, chief investigator at rights group Licadho, said he was investigating Loun Sovath’s case.
“His heart is for encouraging human rights in Cambodia,” Mr Sam Ath said. “Even though he is threatened, he still keeps helping.”
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said she believed the moves to silence Loun Sovath were a clear violations of his rights.
“People have a right to express themselves and a right to freedom,” Ms Sochua said, adding that authorities feared “the power of one person being able to unite the voices of so many.”
Nhem Valey, an under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion, said he was unaware of Loun Sovath.
Churn Saveun, the chief monk at Wat Ounalom, denied that anyone had been threatened for being in contact with Loun Sovath, and emphasized that the monk had removed his belongings of his own accord.
Senior monastic authorities—including Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, who makes his home in Wat Ounalom—could not be reached yesterday for comment.
However, they have made it clear in the past that they believe Cambodia’s Buddhist monks have no business engaging in political activity.
“A monk has no right to involve himself with politics or participate in strike action or destroy the world by bringing himself into trouble,” Supreme Patriarch Non Nget said in the directive aimed at Loun Sovath last month.
In a earlier interview last week, Loun Sovath said he couldn’t disagree more.
“There is nothing wrong with me walking with these people or sitting in at peaceful rallies,” he said. “Buddha did the same thing—he walked for peace and happiness, not war.”
When the time came yesterday for Loun Sovath to leave Wat Ounalom, crowds of onlookers parted to allow him space to walk through. He smiled widely, waving, but his happy demeanor faded when a group of Boeng Kak residents outside began to sob again.
“I felt sad when I saw them crying. My heart was sad,” he said.
“Justice may not come today, but it may come tomorrow or sometime in the future.”
Loun Sovath was staying in accommodation provided by a human right group last night, and is scheduled to fly to Dublin, Ireland today to attend the Dublin Platform 2011, a conference for international human rights defenders.