Rape, murder, drug use and child abuse dragged Cambodia’s Buddhist order through the mud in 2015. But rather than address the crimes plaguing the country’s pagodas, the annual monk congress in Phnom Penh this week focused instead on the rhetoric of Khem Veasna, head of the minor League for Democracy Party (LDP).
More than 800 senior monks and religious officials packed the Chaktomuk Theater over the past two days to reflect on 2015 and look ahead to 2016, with the event’s five-point agenda focusing on broadcasting dharma, printing dharma, Buddhist education, monk administration, and, lastly, “Khem Veasna and the monks who follow Khem Veasna.”
The past 12 months have seen a Siem Reap province pagoda chief charged with the systematic rape of 10 novice monks in his care and the fatal stabbing of a senior clergy member by a teenage monk at a temple in Phnom Penh. Monks have also been caught smoking crystal methamphetamine, hosting prostitutes, raping and attempting to rape women and children, violently attacking laymen and each other, and sneaking out to karaoke parlors in civilian dress.
None of this, however, merited a mention in official proceedings.
Even on the sidelines of the event, senior monks dodged questions from reporters about the crimes committed inside pagodas.
“In this world, individuals, including monks and people who believe in other religions, always make mistakes. No one is perfect,” said Chhoeung Bunchhea, a member of the Supreme Sangha Judicial Council of the Mohanikaya Buddhist sect, when asked why the congress had not addressed rape and other violence inside pagodas.
“For those kind of mistakes, we have senior monks to resolve [them].”
Responding to the same question, Khim Sorn, head of the Mohanikaya sect in Phnom Penh, was more philosophical, but equally evasive.
“The Buddhist dharma is a road that shows us to do good things and…the monks’ actions follow the same patterns as the people,” he said. “So we will work hard to strengthen the structure and administration of monks.”
The focus at this year’s congress was squarely on Mr. Veasna, the outspoken leader of the LDP. Hundreds of CDs labeled “Activity of Khem Veasna who conducts the revolutionary movement to uproot and destroy Buddhism in Cambodia” were distributed to attendees.
The discs contain 50 minutes of audio and still images from various speeches that Mr. Veasna has given in public and on his radio show calling attention to the current state of Buddhism in the country. Complaints at the Chaktomuk Theater ranged from Mr. Veasna calling monks “thieves with bags” to his posting to Facebook an image of a monk with a shoe photoshopped onto his head.
Khim Sorn said that monks who support the LDP should be defrocked.
“Mr. Veasna declares that he does not believe in any religion. Therefore, the monks who join him also have no religion,” he said.
Over lunch, monks sitting on the grass along the river shared similar views. None of those interviewed were aware of the sex abuse scandal in Siem Reap’s Kralanh district. Told of particular indiscretions, they said the actions of Mr. Veasna were far more serious.
“They are two different issues,” said Mok Poeng, the chief monk in Siem Reap’s Puok district, which is adjacent to Kralanh. “The monk chief in Siem Reap affected only one community. Khem Veasna affects the whole country, and every Buddhist country in the world.”
Only Tim Soeuth, the chief monk in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district, appeared willing to draw a connection between the spate of recent crimes and the state of the monkhood. He said the role of pagodas had changed dramatically since he was ordained in Battambang City some 23 years ago.
“In my time, 19- or 20-year-old boys came to the pagoda because they wanted to learn through Buddhism,” he said. “Right now, they come to the pagoda not by their own thinking, but because parents send them to the temple and ask the monkhood to educate them.”
Tim Soeuth said pagodas had become dumping grounds for parents who could not control or afford their children, with more than 80 percent of new residents fitting this description.
“The children—11, 12, 13—stop going to school, often because their parents can’t afford it. They go and associate with bad friends, then the parents become afraid and they send them to the temple and ask Buddhist monks to educate them,” he said, adding that senior monks had been unable to deal with the influx.
“Rich families send their children to get a good education in a private school. Poor families, they send their children to Buddhism,” he said.
While Tim Soeuth agreed with the main message of the day—Khem Veasna is bad—his assessment of the state of Buddhism was not dissimilar to the message the LDP says it is trying to get across.
Mr. Veasna could not be reached on Wednesday, but Sung Dany, who heads the LDP’s Siem Reap branch and is among his closest lieutenants, said the party was simply trying to highlight how the national religion had lost its way.
“They say we are trying to annihilate Buddhism,” Mr. Dany said. “What we are trying to do is improve teaching of the religion. It is not just a belief; it is a way of life.”
Like Tim Soeuth, Mr. Dany said pagodas were being misused by parents who were unfit or unable to properly raise their children. He said the LDP had become concerned about the behavior of monks, and of the wealth of some of those at the top of the Buddhist hierarchy.
“They collect money for what? We know that monks need money, but among them, some are not really virtuous. They use Buddhism as a bridge to get rich, and there are some very rich monks these days,” he said.
Mr. Dany said complaints against his party and its president from senior clergy members were misdirected, as the LDP was only working to improve Buddhism.
“Are we trying to ruin the state religion? No. We even have monks that follow us,” he said. “Most of the young people participating with the LDP know more about Buddhism than those who complain.”