Mohanikaya sect Supreme Patriarch Buddhist leader Tep Vong said Monday he has agreed to back off his previous request to the National Election Committee to use commune offices rather than Buddhist temples for the July elections.
The announcement came after a late afternoon meeting between Tep Vong and Minister of Cults and Religion Chea Saveoun.
The NEC asked the ministries of Interior and Cults and Religion over the weekend to allow election officials to use the country’s 4,000 pagodas during registration and voting.
Chea Saveoun said on Sunday after a meeting with municipal monk chief Nun Nget that he supports using pagodas as polling stations because they are politically neutral. “Monks shouldn’t ban the NEC to use them,” he said.
But last week, the CPP-appointed Tep Vong said religious buildings should not be used in exercises of democracy.
“If you select my temple to be used as a polling station, it means Cambodia has no democracy,” he said.
On Monday, Tep Vong said by telephone that he had made the comments because the NEC hadn’t sought his permission for using the pagodas.
“The NEC and other political parties didn’t respect my rights…. They used the pagodas without informing the owner,” he said.
Both Chea Saveoun and NEC spokesman Leng Sochea praised Tep Vong’s decision on Monday.
Leng Sochea said the NEC had not asked for Tep Vong’s consent because election officials assumed the temples’ political neutrality made them an obvious venue for election procedures.
It is not clear whether Tep Vong has the legal authority to ban the government from the pagodas.
“Next time, if the top monk needs to give his permission, we will ask his permission,” Leng Sochea said.
While Tep Vong reversed his decision about the temples, he renewed his objection to monks casting ballots in July. “Monks are neutral, I don’t allow them to vote,” he said.
Under Cambodian law, the country’s more than 50,000 Buddhist monks have the right to vote. But Tep Vong and Bou Kry, supreme patriarch of the Dhammayut sect, signed a public declaration last year urging monks to refrain from voting.
Buddhist temples comprise 30 percent of the 12,845 public buildings that the NEC plans to use for voter registration, polling, and vote counting, Leng Sochea said last week.
Without the use of the buildings for the election process, the NEC would have to seek out new venues, such as schools, and spend considerably more money for which it had planned, he said.
In the 1998 and 2002 elections, approximately 500 mobile units were used to register voters throughout the country, a procedure that failed to give many eligible voters enough time to sign up, Leng Sochea said.
This year, the NEC has made a concerted effort to make registration procedures more voter-friendly by providing more than 1,200 permanent units in each commune.
Registration of the county’s 6.8 million eligible voters began Friday and is scheduled to end Feb 15.
NEC Secretary General Tep Nitha estimated on Monday that more than 10,000 new voters registered during the first two days of the registration process.
More than one million young voters and people who have recently moved their homes are eligible to register during the next month. Tep Nitha said that because of the disappointing early numbers, the NEC will increase its efforts at educating the public and encouraging people to register through local officials.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)