Phnom Penh Governor Wants Separation of Pagodas, Politics

Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong used an inauguration ceremony for new buildings at Wat Sras Chak on Tuesday to call on politicians and civil society groups to stop distracting Buddhist monks with activities unrelated to religion.

Speaking to hundreds of people at a ceremony to inaugurate new living quarters and other facilities for monks at the pagoda in Daun Penh district, Mr. Socheatvong said monks should be focusing on religious matters.

“I appeal to politicians and civil society to please stop using people as a way to do activities that serve their own political ambition. Give the opportunity to our people, our monks, to fulfill their work at pagodas and strengthen the standard of living for families,” the governor said.

“Please stop it so monks can have an opportunity to operate in order to rebuild the pagodas,” he added.

Though Mr. Socheatvong did not name any politicians or parties, the opposition CNRP successfully mobilized hundreds of monks to take part in its street protests following the 2013 national election.

Mr. Socheatvong said religion could only thrive if a society remained stable, noting the CPP’s success at bringing peace to the country after decades of civil war.

“Religion is like a boat on the water. People are the water to support the boat. So that means that religion could not progress unless people’s living conditions are stable,” he said.

The remarks from Mr. Socheatvong come just over a month after the country’s CPP-aligned Buddhist clergy proposed a law that would ban monks from voting.

But Buntenh, head of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, which often leads demonstrations advocating on social issues, said that Mr. Socheatvong’s comments were hypocritical, as the CPP has long used the monkhood to garner support.

“In the real picture, Hun Sen and Pa Socheatvong himself use the Ministry of Cults and Religion to control the monks,” he said. “Hun Sen wants every temple in the country to protect the Cambodian People’s Party’s political interests.”

Hard Line on Boeng Kak

Mr. Socheatvong also told those gathered at Wat Sras Chak on Tuesday that City Hall was fed up with protests by members of the city’s Boeng Kak community, who he said have no reason to be upset with municipal authorities.

“If they request freedom of expression about the Boeng Kak issue, City Hall will not allow it anymore,” he said.

Eight women from Boeng Kak are currently serving jail terms for blocking a street with a bed in an effort to bring attention to the flooding of their neighborhood, which they blame on City Hall for allowing a development company to fill in a local lake.

The governor claimed that incessant protests by mostly women from the community had caused them to lose touch with their families.

To support his point, Mr. Socheatvong noted the recent divorce of Yorm Bopha, a high-profile Boeng Kak activist who has since announced her plans to marry CNRP lawmaker Real Camerin.

“Yorm Bopha recently divorced her husband to become an Excellency,” he said. “She stopped thinking about her husband, who she had experienced hardships with.”

Ms. Bopha has previously said her ex-husband was physically abusive, had a gambling problem and wanted her to stop joining protests.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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