Over the past six months, two monks have been charged with raping underage girls, two others have been jailed for keeping drug paraphernalia in their rooms, and the chief monk at a pagoda in Siem Reap province has admitted to raping 10 teenage boys in his care.
So when a monk was caught smoking crystal methamphetamine at his pagoda in rural Banteay Meanchey province on Tuesday—and accused of dealing the drug out of the temple—it didn’t seem like such a big deal.
“All people in religions make mistakes—whether they are laymen or clergy,” said Chhoeung Bunchhea of the Mohanikaya Buddhist sect’s Supreme Sangha Judicial Council. “We should remember that even though the state creates laws, people still commit crimes.”
“This is an individual case. Buddhists have to distinguish between monks in general and this individual,” he said. “If it’s one monk, people should tell the difference. Don’t let it affect the honor of other monks.”
This has become the clergy’s standard response to crimes committed by monks. Over the past decade, Cambodia’s Buddhist order has been rocked by scandal after scandal, with rape now almost routine and monks also being arrested for killing elderly women and filming hundreds of naked women as they bathed in holy water.
Yet for Yin Yoeun, head of Banteay Meanchey’s cults and religion department, Tuesday’s arrest was disturbing, with a drug user having led police to the pagoda where the alleged drug-dealing monk, Chhut Vuthy, was sitting in his dormitory smoking crystal meth with two former monks.
“They found them smoking the drugs inside the monk house,” said Mr. Yoeun of the now-defrocked Mr. Vuthy and his friends. “It is an individual case, but it seriously affects Buddhism and the honor of other monks.”
But Buntenh, head of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, a dissident group, said he believed the country’s top clergy—many of whom are closely entwined with the ruling CPP—were uninterested in such ethical transgressions and had instead become “completely concerned by political power.”
With senior monks prioritizing material interests available to those close to the government above spiritual affairs, he said, it was no surprise that little was being done to suppress the frequency of monks committing crimes.
“This issue is a very big problem. Some monks are very good for the nation and brave in terms of protecting our culture and our natural resources, but some monks are now behaving in the wrong way,” he said.
“According to Buddhist tradition, top-ranking monks say this is individual badness and does not represent all monks, but if they were worried about the identity of Buddhism, they would act, because the effect is some people think that all Buddhist monks are bad.”
At last year’s annual meeting of the Buddhist clergy in Phnom Penh, speakers dismissed the mounting cases of rape, murder and drug use among monks, even when pressed by reporters.
“Individuals, including monks …always make mistakes. No one is perfect,” said Chhoeung Bunchhea, the Mohanikaya Buddhist sect councilor, at the time.
Instead, the clergy set their sights on Khem Veasna, a former opposition lawmaker and current leader of the small-time League for Democracy Party, who has been an outspoken critic of today’s monks—often calling them “thieves with bags” due to their begging runs.
The clergy threatened to defrock monks who supported Mr. Veasna, and handed out dozens of CDs with the title, “Activity of Khem Veasna who conducts the revolutionary movement to uproot and destroy Buddhism in Cambodia.”
At the same congress two years before, Tep Vong, Cambodia’s top monk and a longtime ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen, told monks and laymen that they were wasting time protesting against the government.
“They have no rice for you. They only have dog shit for you,” said the great supreme patriarch.
Mr. Veasna of the League for Democracy party said on Wednesday he was not against Buddhism, but claimed that most monks were not driven by the right motivations.
“I don’t criticize monks, I criticize people standing behind the monk image. These are not monks; they are bad people who become monks and commit these things. That is the majority of monks,” he said.
“Cambodia now has a lot of insane people, and they need to find a way to cheat other people to survive because the economy is not so good. They need a way to make money, so they become a monk.”
Mr. Veasna estimated that there were about 50,000 monks in Cambodia, but said few were interested in the life of asceticism and promotion of Buddhist ethics that once defined monastic living.
“Monks in the past were not like today. If you wanted to be a monk, you had to understand the first noble truth: Life is suffering, life is very boring—even life in heaven—so you don’t want to be born again,” he said.
“So you live only to survive. You only eat two times a day, you don’t need modern things, and you go and beg for food. To give something back, you go to the villages and teach people what the Buddha teaches.”
“It’s now very far from that. Monks have iPads, modern cars, and pagoda rooms with air conditioning,” Mr. Veasna said. “If they had to follow what the Buddha teaches, few of them would want to become a monk.”