Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong warned monks Thursday that if they do not follow orders to keep out of politics, they could create a rift within the monkhood that could threaten the very existence of Buddhism in the country.
Mr. Socheatvong also said that if monks remain engaged in politics, the government might have to take away their right to vote in elections.
“Now there are [people] using the religious sector—monks and Buddhism—for political purposes. This is a very dangerous problem,” Mr. Socheatvong told a crowd of about 60 monks and a similar number of Buddhist laymen who gathered at Phnom Penh’s Wat Lanka on Thursday.
“This problem is making Buddhism evaporate and this is very dangerous…. We need to find the solution to solve this problem,” he said.
“Maybe someday we will not allow monks to vote anymore, and then people will complain, saying, ‘The monks are also human, so why not allow them to vote?’”
“But if the monks vote and take one side, there will be discrimination in pagodas and we are afraid the monks will starve,” he said, explaining that people will stop giving alms to pagodas with political leanings that differ from their own.
“Is it appropriate that our pagodas separate into two groups—CPP pagodas and CNRP pagodas? The monks became monks to serve the religion and do social work,” Mr. Socheatvong said, adding that since July’s national election, less money is being donated to pagodas.
“In the past few months, the contributions to Buddhism have decreased by $1 million. When Khmer New Year comes, will [donations] continue to decrease or not? How about Pchum Ben next year, are [donations] going to decrease again?” Mr. Socheatvong asked.
“If in one year there is a decrease of $1 million, and this decrease happens two or three times, the monks will starve,” he claimed.
Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, the leader of the traditionally pro-government Mohanikaya Buddhist sect and a former senior member of the ruling party during the 1980s, has issued four statements since the July national election calling on monks to refrain from joining political protests.
Mr. Socheatvong also urged monks to follow the directives of the government-aligned Buddhist hierarchy, and said that measures would be put in place to closely monitor some 7,000 monks residing in about 140 pagodas across the city.
“Now local police and statistics officials in communes and districts have to survey every pagoda and all monks. Head monks need to cooperate with authorities…to see whether each monk is genuine or not because there have been fake monks on the street,” Mr. Socheatvong claimed.
The city’s CPP governor also addressed the recent furor of some monks over the theft of the country’s only relics of the Buddha, which were stolen last week from a stupa atop Odong mountain.
“Regarding the stolen [relics from the] stupa, some monks try to capitalize on this. Spirituality has been used by opportunists, bad politicians trying to exploit it. This issue must be prevented,” he said.
The Venerable But Buntenh, head of the Independent Monks’ Network for Social Justice, who led a protest this week blaming government corruption for the theft of the relics, said that Mr. Socheatvong’s warnings would only encourage his organization to escalate its protests.
“The more they prohibit my rights, the more I will do,” But Buntenh said, adding that he would organize a march to Mr. Socheatvong’s office at City Hall if it is confirmed that the governor is trying to silence monks in the city.
“Pa Socheatvong has no right to tell monks what to do. He has a right to tell his puppets to stop corruption in the city,” he said, adding that it is the duty of monks to confront the government if it is not serving the people.
“Buddhist monks are a pure people. If we don’t do the work who will?” But Buntenh asked.
“Monks are a symbol of finding peace and justice for the country. Why should we sleep? We should work,” he added.
Tioulong Saumura, a senior opposition lawmaker, said that Mr. Socheatvong’s warning to Phnom Penh’s monks to stay out of the political fray exposed the CPP’s fear of the monks’ influence on the country’s mostly Buddhist population.
“I think the CPP is very scared because monks have moral integrity and a great deal of influence over the population. The CPP is very scared to see that even monks want truth and justice,” she said.
“Nobody should be telling the monks what to do,” Ms. Saumura added.
“If I were Pa Socheatvong, instead of oppressing monks, I would listen to them carefully, because they are closest to the population.”