The threat of police and military force has quashed the open defiance of young monks at Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounalom pagoda, the country’s center of Buddhist authority, after months of rebellion against the demolition of their dormitories to make way for a $4 million dining hall.
The monks—together with poor university students sharing their residence halls—had collected thumbprints, petitioned City Hall and protested their case to Cambodia’s top monk, Tep Vong, who resides at the pagoda.
But on Thursday they were packing bags, putting mattresses into vans and dismantling air conditioners around their five housing blocks after finally caving to what they said was the threat of a forced removal by riot police and the military.
Showing an image of a letter dated Monday from pagoda leadership to district authorities, Va Sarath, 28, a leader at one of the residences, pointed out requests for 10 police and 10 military police officers, as well as 10 security guards and two trucks.
“This is the reason why we’re going to let them knock down these buildings,” Va Sarath said. “We are scared.”
The threat was conveyed during a meeting on Tuesday, compelling the leaders of the five buildings to sign a deal with authorities to move out by Sunday, Va Sarath said.
“Finally, our hope failed,” he said.
Protesters had sought to persuade authorities to retain the five residences, currently housing about 70 people, that gave monks and poor students an opportunity to attend university, even if they could not afford to pay rent, he said.
Although the monks had been promised new dorms on the upper-floors of the planned five-story dining hall, Va Sarath said he did not trust the pagoda leadership to follow through on the pledge.
Sear Pheara, the pagoda’s secretary, who is in charge of the demolition and construction projects, dismissed the rebellion within the pagoda as a small minority of troublemakers.
“It’s just a few monks,” Sear Pheara said. “If they don’t leave, we will still knock the buildings down.”
He said that if the monks did not comply with the agreement to leave, police would force them out. And if they continued to protest, they would be evicted from the pagoda, he said.
Sear Pheara said the new dining hall had to be built to meet the needs of the pagoda’s 412 monks—and that anyone critical of its size did not understand the pagoda’s requirements.
“All these monks don’t have enough room to have lunch together,” he said.
While there is a large empty plot next to the planned dining hall, the entire area is needed for construction, he said.
The building will have basement parking, a ground floor dining hall, and four floors of housing for monks, capable of accommodating 400 people, Sear Pheara said, adding that the building would cost at least $4 million and take up to three years to finish.
“Monks have no money, but Tep Vong will find the money,” Sear Pheara said “He will find supporters for this construction.”
Some young monks in the residences could not hold back their disdain for the pagoda leadership, including Tep Vong.
“I’m really unhappy with the decision of the chief monk to destroy this building,” said Soen Phearam, 24. “The chief monk wants to enhance his reputation by constructing this building to make an impressive place.”
What the monks already had was sufficient, he said. “I don’t want anywhere big.”
Other monks were more accommodating. Thorn Visal, 23, who left the residences earlier this year for temporary accommodations above the pagoda’s infirmary—where he will have his own room—said the monks should just be happy and follow orders.
“I think, why? In Cambodia the chief monk has the power and the right to build something in the pagoda,” he said. “I’m just a student who asked to stay temporarily only.”