But Buntenh, the country’s most prominent activist monk and the founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, is stepping away from the group with plans to continue his studies abroad.
The monk, who has been a relentless environmental campaigner and proponent of various causes often aligned with the opposition CNRP, first announced his departure in a message posted to Facebook on Saturday at 5 p.m.
“In the next 35 hours, I, Venerable But Buntenh, will hand over the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice’s work and material to brave and young monks to continue to lead this work,” he wrote.
He listed his reasons as a desire to “see new shoots of leadership in society,” his plan to leave the country to continue his studies in the middle of next year, and poor health, namely memory loss and fatigue.
But Buntenh’s message ended with a boast about the network’s effectiveness despite a shoestring budget, notably a makeshift radio mobile broadcasting station—built onto the bed of a pickup truck—that the monk said cost less than $20,000.
“Why does the government spend a lot of money but is less effective, especially the broadcasts about protecting the forest,” he said. “The Independent Monk network has enough experience to contribute to protecting Khmer forest, but just asks the rich and powerful people not to prevent the monks’ work.”
The monk, who is in his late 30s, did not respond to requests for comment.
Fellow activists said his departure from environmental activism would hurt the cause, but they were hopeful that others would fill his shoes.
“He is a good man and a good role model who has been doing a good job on environmental protection,” said CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath, who had joined But Buntenh in planning projects to cement the legacy of slain political analyst Kem Ley.
His departure “will have a negative impact on that,” Mr. Chanrath said. “I hope many other people will get involved.”
Chum Hour, who along with his twin brother Chum Hout has often joined But Buntenh at protests or other activities, said he expected the monk to return from his studies with a new mission.
“I’ve heard that he resigned because he wants to pursue studies in a powerful country like America and when he returns he would join to lead a political party,” he said. “I was told that he’s really ambitious and doesn’t want to be an activist, but wants to join politics.”