Protesting Monks Spark Debate About Buddhist Teachings

When the Buddhist Institute near Phnom Penh’s National Museum was inaugurated on May 28, CPP President Chea Sim urged Cambodian voters to act in a manner that reflects traditional Buddhist beliefs. Every Cam­bo­dian citizen, Chea Sim said, “must use the teaching of the Lord Buddha, the Dharma, to suppress anger, arrogance [and] ambition.”

Now hundreds of monks have left their pagodas to join wild opposition rallies and staged sit-ins outside the US Embassy. They have taken vicious beatings from military police, and some are rumored to have been killed. Monks, in short, have become players in Cambodia’s post-election turmoil, dividing opinions on whether this sudden immersion in politics is reconcilable with the Buddha’s teachings.

One major controversy focuses on the monks’ alleged violation of the Buddhist ideal of political neutrality. “If monks demonstrate against the government and for democracy, they break the Buddhist rules” of non-involvement and self-discipline, says Um Suom, the second-ranking monk in the Mohanikay branch.

Aiming to legitimize the crackdown on protesting monks, government officials have cited article 15 of the Law on Political Parties, which prohibits monks from engaging in “any activity in support of or in opposition to any political parties.”

But others say it’s not clear that the monks were, in fact, taking sides when they showed up at opposition rallies. Rather, they argue, the monks were expressing support for goals set out by the Buddha.

Hema Goonatilake, a Budd­hism expert based at Wat Oun­a­lom, says that the Buddha urged his followers to promote democracy, social and political equality as well as human rights: “The Buddha was the first hum­an rights activist in the world.”

Goonatilake nevertheless concedes that there should be limits to political activity. Whether monks should be permitted to speak out for one particular party is a tricky issue, she says, adding, “there needs to be some kind of decorum. It’s the cause you’re fighting for but there should be absolutely no violence.”

Giving examples of Buddhist political activism, Goonatilake cites 1942 when Cambodian monks stood up against French colonial rule—a comparison that Om Khem, director of the Bud­dhism Institute, calls inadequate because resistance then was directed against a foreign oppressor.

As for 1998, Om Khem recommends that monks “stay in their pagodas and give advice to people about social affairs, or they can write statements and appeal to people to abstain from violence but it’s not proper to join demonstrations.” Demonstrating monks broke the Buddhist principle of not going out after dark, religious authorities say.

Provisions against participating in political events also suit the government, which has urged monks to stay at their wats. “They can vote but then they should go back and recite and study,” says Khieu Sopheak, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. Referring to reported incidents of monks taunting and even attacking the police, Khieu Sopheak adds that monks are supposed to be the “teachers for the people to act non-violently.”

But there is no doubt that the brutal crackdown on those teachers of non-violence have taken the debate about their political activism to a whole new level.

Um Suom says that policemen should have established what the monks were protesting against before attacking them. “Joining political demonstrations wasn’t right, “ he says. “But it’s not right to beat anyone without a reason.”

Lao Mong Hay, executive dir­ec­tor of the Khmer Institute of De­mocracy, goes further, calling the beatings of monks “a sin ….They are legally and morally wrong.”

According to Buddhist provisions, a monk who commits a crime has to be defrocked by religious officials before he is turned over to secular courts.

Beyond the legal issues, Lao Mong Hay says, the physical at­tacks on monks are an affront to Cambodian religion and culture because “monks represent the Buddha.” A Thursday statement by Prince Norodom Ran­ariddh likened the attacks to the “systematic killings of monks and the wiping out of Buddhism [that] took place during the three-year Pol Pot communist regime.”

Opposition leaders claim that the question of whether monks should be permitted to join party rallies pales in comparison to the issues raised by the violent police reaction. By cracking down on protesters and monks, says Fun­cinpec parliamentarian-elect Mu Sochua, “the CPP has gone above the limits of their power. It’s no longer about Funcinpec or the CPP any longer. You’re talking about a democratic movement…and the monks are part of that.”


Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.