Phnom Penh City Hall has created an ad hoc committee to investigate whether monks at the restive Samakki Raingsey pagoda—a hotbed of anti-eviction activism that has raised the ire of local authorities over the past several months—have been properly ordained.
Rights groups and monks at the pagoda say the move is a ploy to silence one of the few pagodas in the city not under the thumb of the ruling CPP and to stamp out legally protected dissent.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page on Friday, City Hall said the committee was created in the wake of the fatal stabbing last month of the pagoda’s second deputy chief monk by a fellow monk “to resolve illegal controversies and other anti-government acts” there. It said Phnom Penh deputy governor Khuong Sreng presided over a meeting of the committee on Tuesday to review the work of the pagoda’s monks and other inhabitants.
For the past half-year, Samakki Raingsey has offered shelter to communities from the provinces that have come to Phnom Penh to press the government to intervene in their land disputes with private companies. Police have repeatedly blocked the visitors and their hosts from leaving the pagoda to protest, and in November arrested a pair of monks who were on their way to a planned rally there.
Contacted Sunday, municipal spokesman Long Dimanche said the newly formed committee includes representatives from the city’s police, military police and department of religion. He accused the pagoda’s chief monks of being bad Buddhists and went so far as to suggest that they had designs to break away from the government’s control.
“All their actions are in contravention of Buddhist rules and discipline, and we have never seen Samakki Raingsey cooperate with the authorities. It is like a secession in the city, and we cannot let them do it,” he said.
Mr. Dimanche said municipal authorities would visit the pagoda sometime this month.
“We will check whether the pagoda has been created legitimately. We will look at the laws and procedures and check the monks who stay there to see if they joined the monkhood in compliance with the law,” he said. “We do not know if Samakki Raingsey is legitimate.”
Thach Ha Sam Ang, Samakki Raingsey’s acting chief monk, said the January 12 murder was being used as an excuse for City Hall to intimidate monks at one of the few pagodas that refused to toe the CPP line, and possibly close down the pagoda.
“The government is afraid of the pagoda because it supports the people and dares to speak out against the government,” he said. “It is not right to use this excuse [the murder] to shut down the pagoda.”
“All the actions of the monks at Samakki Raingsey are meant to help people with land disputes,” the acting chief monk added. “This does not violate the law and it is the right thing to do. We are not causing insecurity.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, also said that the city was scrutinizing the pagoda now—some 17 years after it was established—because the pagoda was supporting protesters, and not because of the recent murder.
He scoffed at the city spokesman’s suggestion that a secessionist movement was brewing there.
“They cannot use the word ‘secession’ for the pagoda; it is a serious word,” Mr. Sam Ath said. “Secession means the pagoda wants to separate from the state. But how can they separate when the monks have no weapons?”
Mr. Sam Ath said the new committee was further proof that the government feared losing control of the monkhood.
Before and after the 2013 national election, hundreds of monks defied their Buddhist patriarchs by joining the opposition CNRP in protest marches against the CPP in Phnom Penh and staging their own marches in the countryside. The CPP narrowly won the poll, according to the official count, but the ruling party had its worst showing in 20 years.
In November, the leaders of the country’s two main Buddhist sects called on the government to pass a law that would prevent monks from voting.
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