A meeting at Phnom Penh’s Wat Stung Meanchey over accusations that a monk at the pagoda threw Buddha statues into a garbage-filled pond descended into chaos on Monday afternoon as his interrogators attempted to stop his supporters from entering the main temple where the monks had gathered.
On Saturday, senior monks at the pagoda in Meanchey district decided to defrock longtime resident Kim Seila, 52, following allegations from fellow monks that he had thrown about 10 artifacts, including Buddha statues, into the filthy pond.
The monk claims he was framed for supporting land-rights activists and because he is Khmer Krom, a minority that is marginalized in both Cambodia and Vietnam.
At about 2 p.m. on Monday, the pagoda’s leaders joined with officials from the municipal cults and religion department inside the main temple to question Kim Seila and decide whether to uphold the decision to defrock him. Another 30-odd monks from the pagoda blocked dozens of Khmer Krom activist monks and other supporters from entering the building.
The tension boiled over at about 5:30 p.m., when a false rumor that Kim Seila was being defrocked inside spread through the crowd, and scuffles broke out between the protesters and those guarding the building. Though nobody appeared to get hurt, the meeting was postponed and no decision was made.
As Kim Seila exited the building, he shouted “We need justice!” to cheers from his supporters, before addressing the monks standing guard.
“The group of you put the Buddha statues in the pond and put the blame on me,” he said. “I do hope you can find justice for me. You called me to join a meeting and then you put the blame on me.”
Speaking by telephone after making a quick exit from the meeting, Phorn Davy, director of the municipal cults and religion department, criticized the protesting monks for interrupting the meeting.
“It is not right,” he said. “They violated the right of the religious institution.”
“Those people were concerned that he was being defrocked in the meeting…but we had not yet decided to defrock him; we will fully question him,” Mr. Davy said, adding that another meeting would be held at the pagoda today.
Thach Thavry, 22, a Khmer Krom monk from Wat Samakki Raingsey, explained that he and the other protesters panicked because the monks and officials conducting the meeting did not meet their own deadline for finishing the questioning.
“The meeting lasted more than three hours and no result was released, but then they said 10 more minutes and they would be finished,” he said. “We decided to [enter the building] because we were concerned about the safety of the Venerable [Kim Seila], and that they might have been forcing him to defrock.”