Monks Threatened With Expulsion for Sheltering Villagers

Three activist monks have been threatened with expulsion from Wat Changkran Taprohm in Phnom Penh for providing shelter to villagers locked in a land dispute and for speaking out against the government.

Yin Ratanaksotheavy, 35, Ly Channen, 47, and Seung Hai, 28, have been assisting 50 villagers, mostly former Khmer Rouge soldiers, from Banteay Meanchey province, who traveled to Phnom Penh to bring attention to their land dispute. The monks have been sheltering them at the pagoda, also known as Wat Stung Meanchey, since Sunday.

Monks organize a press conference at Phnom Penh's Wat Stung Meanchey for 67 families involved in a land dispute in Banteay Meanchey's Malai district. (John Vink)
Monks organize a press conference at Phnom Penh’s Wat Stung Meanchey for 67 families involved in a land dispute in Banteay Meanchey’s Malai district. (John Vink)

Ly Channen, who in 2010 returned from 10 years living in Canada, said 40 monks, led by the pagoda’s acting chief Thai Buntheoun, warned the three that they will be thrown out if they accept any more villagers or, in the wake of a meeting with villagers at the temple on Sunday, hold any further politicized gatherings.

“We disagree with this, because no one should violate our rights such as speaking, walking and communicating,” said Li Chan Nen, a visiting monk to the pagoda.

Ly Channen was at the forefront of recent protests against the Vietnamese Embassy, as was Seung Hai, who on August 12 burned a Vietnamese flag in front of the embassy.

An additional 230 families from Banteay Meanchey are expected to arrive in Phnom Penh in the coming days and the trio had promised them sanctuary at Wat Stung Meanchey.

The pagoda’s first deputy chief monk, Yim Ekvutha, said that Yin Ratanaksotheavy, the only permanent resident of the pagoda facing eviction, took in the first group of villagers without permission from the chief monk.

“A few days ago, he caused a problem by insulting the government and this activity disrupted the monks’ order,” Yim Ekvutha said.

“I told him, ‘Don’t bring politics into the pagoda because it is Pchum Ben season,’” he said, referring to the 15-day Buddhist festival that began on Tuesday.

The Banteay Meanchey villagers, who say a Thai company is buying up their land, returned to protest in the capital after the government failed to follow through on a promise made last month to demarcate some of the land for them.

They are the latest in a succession of groups who have sought refuge at pagodas in Phnom Penh after traveling from various provinces to petition the government over their land disputes.

Yim Ekvutha said the three monks would only be banned from the pagoda if they ignored his directive. He then went on to accuse Yin Ratanaksotheavy of soliciting donations from abroad for the land rights cause and keeping the cash for himself.

“He is a rogue monk,” Yim Ekvutha said. “He gets involved in protests to serve his own business interests, and brings villager here then posts about it on Facebook to get money from overseas.”

Yin Ratanaksotheavy said he was not concerned by the threat of eviction, adding that he had not broken any rules.

“I am not scared. I have protested against [Prime Minister] Hun Sen and yuon,” he said, using an often derogatory term for people of Vietnamese descent. “How could I be scared of a small chief monk?”

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