Already wracked by recent scandals of monks eloping with teenage girls and imposter monks begging for alms, Cambodia’s Buddhist faith may face waning public trust amid cases of charlatan monks stealing from lay believers, officials said.
On April 4 the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged two men with armed robbery while dressed as monks.
Bul Lang, 27, and Much Von, 26, were accused of tying up a family and taking a motorbike at gunpoint in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district on March 26, police said.
“They disguised themselves as monks and begged for water, and then robbed a family,” Phnom Penh municipal serious crime police chief Chuon Narin said. “[Imposter monks] beg for food and water, or they ask to use a toilet, and then they steal stuff, like mobile phones.”
Thieves and robbers masquerading as monks are surprisingly commonplace but police find it difficult to investigate suspects because their disguises make it hard to differentiate between the real and the fake, Chuon Narin added.
Ten monk imposters were arrested in Phnom Penh and Kandal in November and early December and charged with fraud. And at least 11 more have since been arrested following orders from Mohanikya sect Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong who called for closer monitoring of monks’ public activities, said Chhoeng Bunchhea, Tep Vong’s cabinet chief.
“When authorities arrest them, our role is to confiscate the robes and then allow them to be punished according to the law,” Chhoeng Bunchhea said.
“I would like to appeal to people to be careful, because they have sophisticated tricks,” Chhoeng Bunchhea said of imposters.
Those found guilty of masquerading as monks should face serious consequences, Chhoeng Bunchhea added.
“Don’t just educate and then release them. They have destroyed the culture of the nation,” he said.
But imposter monks aren’t the only problem testing the Buddhist faithful.
In March, 130 people demonstrated in Banteay Meanchey province in favor of the removal of a chief monk accused of raping a 14-year-old girl. In September monks were defrocked for drunkenness and vandalism at a Svay Rieng province pagoda. And in August a Pursat Province monk hacked another with a machete over an unpaid $5 debt.
Srou Kimthea, 70, said she wants to pay respect but is afraid to help individual monks or invite them into her home because she cannot tell the difference between true believers and confidence men.
“My neighbors told me of monks begging for alms, going into people’s houses, stealing money and telephones, asking to go to the toilet and sitting near their daughters and so on,” Srou Kimthea said.
Chbar Ampov market vendor Huot Sokpoeu said he is always on the lookout for swindlers dressed in saffron-colored robes.
“We have to bow to them,” Huot Sokpoeu said, but added that he always has his eyes wide open. “I have to examine their attitude, speech and character,” he said. “I am afraid of [imposters].”