A Hard Road To Phnom Penh For Marching Monks

Monks and their supporters marching to Phnom Penh on a 10-day “Peace Walk,” as part of International Human Rights Day, said Wednesday that pagodas along the way have repeatedly tried to shut them out, and they have scuffled with police on at least one occasion.

About 100 monks are leading the marchers, who set out on Sunday from various points along five national roads leading to Phnom Penh.

Marching to protest the disputed results of July’s national election, forced evictions and human rights abuses, the monks plan to hand ruling CPP lawmakers a list of their grievances when they arrive for a planned rally in front of the National Assembly on Tuesday.

But the marchers said they’ve had little help from many of the pagodas along their route.

Vorn Poeu, an activist who is not a monk but joined a leg of the march on National Road 6, said local police used their motorcycles to block the entrance to Baray pagoda, in Kompong Thom province’s Baray district, when his group arrived on Tuesday evening hoping to spend the night at the wat.

Undeterred by the intimidation, Mr. Poeu said the marching monks and supporters pushed their way into the pagoda grounds, knocking over the motorcycles and briefly scuffling with the police and local monks who also tried to keep them out.

“We pushed over the motorbikes because the authorities and the pagoda committee people blocked the entrance gate so that we could not get inside,” Mr. Poeu said.

Though the pagoda’s resident monks eventually let the marchers spend the night inside the compound, he said, “the pagoda committee people locked all the monks’ houses to not let our monks stay inside.”

Morm Sok, a Baray district council member for the ruling CPP and deputy chief of the Baray pagoda committee, confirmed the scuffle between the marching monks, their supporters and the police and local monks.

Mr. Sok accused the marchers of being aggressive and blamed them for showing up without a permission letter from upper-level monks authorizing they stay at the pagoda.

“We wanted to prevent them from getting inside because they did not have a permission letter to stay in the pagoda. They are guests, so they should ask permission from us to stay,” he said.

Commune police chief Khun Neang Meng confirmed that some of his officers were involved in the incident, but said he could not comment on what happened because he was not there.

Mr. Poeu, however, blamed the cold reception squarely on politics.

“Mr. Morm Sok is a CPP… council member, so he serves the CPP,” he said, adding that fellow marchers traveling toward Phnom Penh along other roads have had similar problems with local authorities.

“The marchers have sometimes had to sleep on the side of the national roads or in rice fields because most of the pagodas’ doors are locked when we get there for lunch or at night,” he said.

Along National Road 4 on Wednesday, the Venerable Ngim Sao Samkhan said monks at a pagoda in Kompong Speu province’s Thpong district shut the front gate when the marchers arrived for a lunch break. He said the local monks put their weight behind the gate to try and keep it shut but the marchers managed to push it open.

“The [pagoda] committee people tried to close the pagoda gate, but we all pushed it open to get inside,” he said.

“I think there is an order to not let us enter the pagodas from the upper levels.”

Along National Road 5, the Venerable Bun Buntenh, who heads the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice and was instrumental in organizing the 10-day march, said he too had trouble arranging accommodations for his group Wednesday night at a pagoda in Kompong Chhnang province’s Boribor district.

“The monk in charge of the local pagoda is afraid of local authorities so he would not let us sleep in the pagoda. The local authority put pressure on him not [to] allow us to stay,” he said. “But we negotiated and now he let us stay. We told him we take full responsibility for any problem and that we only march for social justice.”

Nget Chanbo, who heads the religion department at the Ministry of Cults and Religion, said the ministry did not support the marchers “because they can disturb the public order.”

Mr. Chanbo denied that the ministry had anything to do with the obstructions the marches are facing at pagodas.

“The ministry has not instructed the pagoda committees not to let the monks stay during the march, and I don’t know about these cases,” he said.

A modest but growing number of monks have become increasingly active and outspoken in their opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP since July’s elections, which the opposition CNRP and their supporters accuse the CPP of stealing through widespread voter fraud.

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