There were chaotic scenes outside Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounalom on Friday morning when Buddhist monks emerged from the pagoda and clashed with a group of some 50 Khmer Krom monks participating in a peaceful march to highlight alleged religious oppression in Vietnam.
One Khmer Krom monk suffered a cut above his eye after being hit with a stone by one of several men in civilian dress who accompanied the Wat Ounalom monks as they tried to block the marchers’ progress on Sisowath Quay.
The march began around 7:30am when the Khmer Krom monks attempted to deliver a protest letter to the Vietnamese Embassy calling on Vietnam to account for three missing monks and reinstate six monks who were defrocked in February. Monk Hul Phirom, 26, who described himself as a spokesman for the marchers, said Vietnamese authorities had accused the nine of engaging in political agitation.
Blocked by police from approaching the embassy, the monks walked to the Royal Palace carrying banners demanding the release of their colleagues.
Hundreds of riot police and plainclothes officers followed the monks who sat in front of the palace praying for around an hour before continuing their march to the US Embassy.
At the Royal Palace the monks were told to end their rally by Long Kim Leang, deputy chief monk for Daun Penh district. “If they do not obey the Buddhist rules, they will be arrested. If they do not listen, we will take some action,” Long Kim Leang told reporters.
Shortly after, as the marchers passed Wat Ounalom, which is home to Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, scuffles broke out when several monks and civilians emerged from the pagoda and tried to block the march. Water bottles were thrown and monks on both sides pushed and shoved.
One monk was hit with a stone and several others were slightly hurt when police intervened in the melee. Tep Vong declined to comment on the incident late Friday. Supreme Patriarch Non Nget said he deplored fighting between monks but blamed the marchers for not having permission from authorities.
“If those monks consider themselves Cambodian monks they will listen to Cambodian authorities,” he said, adding that they were “spoiling Buddhism” by protesting.
With blood pouring from a gash over his eye, monk Lim Yuth, 23, said: “I only asked them not to violate the rights of Kampuchea Krom monks, but someone hit me with a rock.”
Sun Kim Hun, secretary of state at the ministry of cults and religion, said only the supreme patriarch could resolve disputes between monks.
Shadowed by riot police, the march ended with the monks delivering a letter to the US Embassy seeking support from Washington in their grievances with Vietnam.
“We know the US and Vietnamese have business and political relations. We want the US to pressure the Vietnamese government to release the monks,” Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Krom Association, said at the embassy.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said the embassy received the letter and would “look over” the monks’ concerns.
Officials at the Vietnamese Embassy could not be contacted for comment.