Dozens of activist monks rallied on Sunday at Wat Stung Meanchey to protest the pagoda’s decision to defrock a fellow monk for allegedly throwing Buddha statues into a dirty pond, claiming that he was framed because he is Khmer Krom and is known for supporting land activists.
On Saturday, senior monks at the pagoda decided in a meeting to defrock Kim Seila, 52, following accusations from other monks that he had thrown about 10 Buddha statues and artifacts into a nearby garbage-filled pond while cleaning his new monk house—a charge that he denied on Sunday.
Acting chief monk Thai Bunthoeun said the discarded statues were discovered in the pond by a motorbike taxi driver on Saturday.
“Nuns and Buddhists came to complain, accusing the monk of taking the Buddha statues to throw away in the pond,” he said, adding that he did not witness Kim Seila discarding the artifacts.
“I called a meeting and decided there were two solutions for him if he is found to be wrong. The first is firing him from the pagoda, and the second is defrocking,” he said. “For monks to inflict harm on a Buddha statue, relic, stupa or Bodhi tree is a mistake we cannot forgive.”
Thai Bunthoeun added that the decision had not been finalized because the monks still wanted to hear Kim Seila’s version of events. “We will try to talk with him to continue to find a resolution,” he said.
However, on Saturday night, a mob of about 100 monks from the pagoda surrounded Kim Seila’s old monk house, in which he was still staying, demanding that he be defrocked.
On Sunday, a group of at least 50 mostly Khmer Krom monks arrived at the pagoda at about 2 p.m. to show support for Kim Seila and to defend him from the mob of angry monks. A shouting match between the two sides ensued.
The Khmer Krom group then advised Kim Seila not to attend his scheduled meeting with the acting monk chief unless rights groups and the media were also allowed to attend, a request that the senior monks denied.
Speaking at his house on Sunday, Kim Seila denied having thrown statues of Buddha into the pond.
“The accusation is not true. I think someone put the blame on me,” he said.
The monk, who has been staying at the pagoda for 15 years, said the statues were thrown away after he had asked for help cleaning his new house, which he had purchased from another monk on Friday, before moving in.
“I was tired so I told [the old owner of the monk house] to ask the students to clean it,” said Kim Seila, who was ill and hooked up to an IV drip on Sunday.
He said that it was obvious that he was being framed because the statues were so easy to locate.
“If I did [throw them out], why were the statues found near land and made easy for the man to find? I think someone planned that,” Kim Seila said, going on to offer a variety of reasons as to why he might have been targeted.
“The first is discrimination because I am a Khmer Krom person. Second is my popularity as many people support me. Third, someone wants my new monk house,” he said.
Yin Yat, a 27-year-old monk at the pagoda, defended Kim Seila, claiming the accusation was due to the monk’s donations to people protesting over land disputes.
“He supported land dispute activists by donating rice and clean water when they join demonstrations,” he said. “I live here so I know he was sick a few days ago, and also no one saw him do it.”
Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, who was also at the pagoda on Sunday, said he thought the threat of defrocking was down to discrimination.
“I request the Ministry of Cults and Religion to take action,” he said. “Please stop [the discrimination] urgently because monks from Khmer Krom just came to study Buddhism. We are all Khmer together and follow the same Buddhist religion.”
Khim Sorn, chief of the Mohanikaya Buddhist sect in Phnom Penh, said that while he was aware of the case, he could not comment because he had not received an official report.
The municipal cults and religion department could not be reached for comment.