During lulls in business around Wat Phnom, motorbike-taxi drivers often crowd around Som Sophan’s tuk-tuk to listen to the news on his radio. The story of Tim Sakhorn, the defrocked Khmer Krom monk who has been missing for three weeks, is a sad one, Som Sophan, 37, said Monday.
“We feel pity when we gather in a group and hear news about the missing monk,” he said. “Where is the monk? Why doesn’t the government bring him back? We feel pity for his family and his old father.”
Chhim Sithon, another tuk-tuk driver working near Wat Phnom, agreed.
“The authorities should find him,” the 48-year-old said. “If he is in Vietnam or Cambodia, we want to know.”
Tim Sakhorn, of Kiri Vong district in Takeo province, disappeared June 30 after being defrocked under orders from Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, who accused him of undermining relations with Hanoi by trying to establish a religious movement out of his Phnom Den commune pagoda.
Government officials maintained that after being defrocked Tim Sakhorn traveled willingly to Vietnam, though rights workers say he was abducted and have expressed increasing concern for his safety.
In Phnom Penh on Sunday and Monday, several people interviewed said they thought Tim Sakhorn’s defrocking was inappropriate and urged the authorities to now locate the missing monk.
Chhim Sithon said that Tim Sakhorn’s disappearance was likely intended to intimidate those who are critical of the government.
“It’s intimidation to other monks,” he said. “Not only monks but all people are afraid to express their thoughts,” he added.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, who has previously said that Tim Sakhorn consented to being sent to Vietnam, said Monday that he had no idea where the missing monk is now.
“We also want to know where he is,” Khieu Sopheak said, before declining further comment.
Yim Leang Heng, a 21-year-old tourism student at Norton University, said Tim Sakhorn’s troubles started because he had been trying to help ethnic Khmers born in present-day Vietnam.
And Sok Vibol, also a 21-year-old tourism student at Norton, said he did not believe reports by state-run TVK and some government officials that Tim Sakhorn was defrocked for having an affair with a woman.
Prak Sarann, Adhoc coordinator for Takeo province, has previously said Tim Sakhorn had been giving shelter to Khmer Krom monks who claimed they were fleeing persecution in Vietnam.
Non Nget, supreme patriarch and chief of Phnom Penh’s monks, defended the defrocking of Tim Sakhorn on Sunday and explained the decision was based on the monk’s activities.
“[Tim Sakhorn] provoked problems, we complied with the law,” Non Nget said, adding that Tim Sakhorn had been driving a wedge between Phnom Penh and Hanoi. Tep Vong declined to speak to a reporter Monday.
Amongst some monks in Phnom Penh, Tim Sakhorn’s disappearance appeared to be having a chilling effect and several said they were too concerned for their security to speak publicly about the case with a reporter.
“We dare not express our opinion,” said a 30-year-old monk standing outside Wat Prayou Vong, in Chamkar Mon district’s Tonle Bassac commune. “It’s a small pagoda, so we’re afraid to speak out,” said the monk on condition of anonymity. “Maybe [Tep Vong] will see that I talked with The Cambodia Daily,” the monk added.
A 35-year-old Khmer Krom monk at Wat Moha Montrey in Chamkar Mon district said monks fear retribution for expressing their views. “Living in this society, it is good not to know a lot,” the monk said, also on condition of anonymity.
Outside Wat Prayou Vong, Chhay Hun, 76, who runs a small shop selling quilted Buddhist wall hangings, said the Tim Sakhorn case indicates that Cambodia has not put its troubled past behind it.
“They always say we’re at peace but in fact we’re not at peace,” she said. “If we were at peace, people would not go missing,” she added.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)