Angry villagers in Meanchey district literally defrocked two monks accused of embezzlement Sunday afternoon while a large contingent of police looked on, according to eyewitnesses.
Wat Sumpong Phal Ondet, on the banks of the Mekong River about 2 km past the Monivong Bridge, was peaceful at 4 pm. But only one-and-a-half hours earlier, villagers tore the frocks off and beat Roth Tanak and Roth Chouk Chinda for allegedly embezzling money from a festival one year ago. The two are cousins.
By Sunday evening, police, monks who witnessed the beating, Sam Rainsy Party members and the Minister for Cults and Religions all differed on why the monks were being held.
“This [public beating] was completely against the rule of law and Buddhist principles,” one monk, Thath Loc, said shortly after watching the incident.
Son Chhay, member of parliament-elect for the Sam Rainsy Party, claimed the pair were arrested and beaten for being party supporters. Other party members made the same claims, but they could not be verified. Monks are supposed to be politically neutral.
“It’s looking like they are trying to intimidate party activists before the Aug 23 demonstration,” Son Chhay said, only one hour after the incident. The party is planning a demonstration against election irregularities Sunday.
Thath Loc and other monks who saw the beating said about 30 district and military police arrived to arrest the two monks at about 2 pm. They said the police watched as villagers, plus some unknown men from outside the village they described as “gangsters,” beat the pair and tore their robes off. Thath Loc denied that the pair or other monks at the wat were politically active.
Luk Lun, Meanchey police chief, said the 30 police were there to prevent a riot. He said he was asked to arrest the pair by the Venerable Non Gnet, the nation’s top monk who is aligned with the CPP.
Luk Lun said villagers had surrounded the wat at about 11 am, but the pair refused to come out. The police arrived at about 2 pm and arrested them, he confirmed.
The monks were taken to the Khan Meanchey Police Inspection office.
Police allowed Roth Tanak’s sister, Kao Chhay Leang, to see the pair at about 5:30 pm. Afterwards, she said the pair had bruises all over their bodies and her brother had a bloody gash on his scalp. She denied her brother was a Sam Rainsy Party supporter.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak didn’t know about the incident Sunday, but said he doubted the police would act on the orders of a monk.
“If it’s true, they should have a warrant from the court,” he said.
Khoung Saothanh, deputy chief monk of the wat, said the pair were left in charge of money for a Kakthin Festival—designed to raise money for wats—by the head monk, who has left for the US. He alleged the two “wasted” the money—about $600.
He said the Ministry of Cults and Religion ordered the pair defrocked on Saturday, but “they were stubborn and refused.”
Khoung Saothanh confirmed villagers beat the monks and the police were present at the time.
“[The villagers] have a right to do that,” he said. “If they didn’t get them out of here, it would be bad for the people.”
He also denied the pair were involved in politics.
Minister of Cults and Religion Hien Vanroath, however, refuted there was any order to defrock the monks. He said there was one monk, whose name he could not recall, and not two. That monk was allegedly involved in taking money last year from festival funds, he said, but the punishment decided on last week by Non Gnet was that he be transferred to another pagoda.
Hien Vanroath said the monk had promised to pay back the funds.
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