Nine armed men in uniforms entered Wat Langka about noon Wednesday and harassed a 21-year-old student, the “head pagoda boy,” living there. Witnesses said the men beat the youth with a stick, kicked him and fired one shot from a gun into the ground near him.
The incident is a more extreme example of many reported to media and human rights workers in wats around the city in the past two days. It is part of an organized police effort to “persuade” monks to not participate in protests.
“The measures are only to persuade the monks,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman at the Interior Ministry. “The police are saying: please stay at the pagoda.”
A portion of the military, intervention and anti-terrorist police forces currently deployed in Phnom Penh have been ordered to go to all the cities’ temples and tell monks not to participate in protests and to root out demonstrators that may be hiding there, said Yeng Marady, deputy director of the National Police.
About 1,200 police from the three units deployed around Phnom Penh to maintain order, Khieu Sopheak said.
Monks and human rights officials reported groups of police have entered Wat Ounalom, Wat Ptoum, Neka Pagoda and Mohamantrey Pagoda since protests at the National Assembly ended Tuesday. Groups of police entered Wat Langka and Wat Ounalom armed with guns and electric batons, kicking and threatening monks and laymen living there.
Police are carrying weapons into wats for protection against protesters and lay people who might be inside wanting to hurt them, Khieu Sopheak said.
But groups of armed police walking through the cities’ wats is not just a “persuasion” tactic, but a clear example of intimidation, said one opposition leader, Mu Sochua, Funcinpec parliamentarian-elect for Battambang province.
And some monks are responding. Terrified monks have flooded human rights organizations who record their stories and then return them to their wats. One human rights organization reported helping as many as 68 monks since the protest was broken up Tuesday afternoon.
The problem, officials say, is that many monks are defying laws and religious precepts that prohibit monks from actively participating in political protests.
“The monks have no right to serve any political party or get involved in politics. They must stay close with the precepts of Buddhist religion,” said Sar Kheng, co-minister of the Interior. “Monks are a symbol…of the nation, for people to respect, but monks who join the demonstration are seen as improper.”
Monks in saffron robes have made up highly photogenic clumps of opposition protests that have filled the city’s streets in the past few weeks. Most walked in silence under the shade of yellow umbrellas. But many have been accused of shouting political slogans and hateful words at police. Monks stood among rowdy demonstrators at a spontaneous protest at the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana Monday night, defying another rule—that monks not leave their wats at night.
But monks and Buddhist academics interviewed Tuesday defended their rights to protest.
“If I have the right to vote, why do I not have the right to defend my vote if I think it is not used correctly?” a 27-year-old monk at Wat Ounalom asked. The monk declined to give his name. “The people feed us. They give us food. If the people are angry we must support them.”
Rumors of dead monks flew in Phnom Penh on Wednesday after a protest including dozens of monks was broken up at the US Embassy. Police attempting to disperse the crowd shot two monks, and beat others with sticks and hosed them down with water cannons. By late Wednesday night, the Interior Ministry, the UN, human rights officials and opposition party members could not confirm any deaths.
The prospect of the government killing monks, however, is certain to stir up emotions in a city already tense, one academic said.
“We have a very serious crisis when monks are being killed. Cambodians will be outraged at that and others in [Hun Sen’s] own party will be extremely upset about this so the pressure on him to back down I think will increase,” Stephen Heder, of the London School for Oriental and African Studies, told the BBC.
Khieu Sopheak flatly denied reports of any dead or imprisoned monks and called them a rumor, adding that police have been ordered not to arrest any monks.
A cremation at Wat Langka on Tuesday night was rumored to be that of a monk. In fact, workers cremated the body of a 30-year-old moto-taxi driver who was killed by a gunshot wound to the head during protests at the Cambodiana on Monday night.
Monks on Wednesday continued to look for others who had disappeared over the past few days. At Wat Ounalom, most of the monks who were reported missing Tuesday had returned the next day, Dr Hema Goonatilake, a Buddhist expert working at Wat Ounalom said. At Wat Langka, monk Tep Sok said several were still thought to be missing.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Hodson)