The chief monk of Kompong Speu province last month became the latest senior clergy member to be faced with a sex abuse case in his jurisdiction, with one of his monks jailed for attempting to rape a 9-year-old girl.
Coming little more than a year after an ex-monk shot dead his former pagoda chief just a few kilometers away from the pagoda now at the center of the sex abuse allegations, it was a sign that a severe moral sickness was going untreated among the clergymen provincial chief monk Dou Vandoeun had been tasked with managing.
The monk chief took no responsibility for the case, dismissing the attempted rape as an aberration, a crime committed by a “bad” monk, and he was neither disciplined nor told by his superiors to bring his monks in line.
Yet the same kid-glove treatment was not afforded to Dou Vandoeun on Thursday, with religious authorities deciding to strip him of his position for singing on stage at a post-Khmer New Year concert at his pagoda on Sunday night.
“The senior monks have decided to remove him from his position as a warning to other monks to stop …doing things like this mistake, and in order not to affect Buddhism’s reputation,” said Seng Somony, spokesman for the Ministry of Cults and Religion.
“Singing and dancing is not a serious enough mistake to defrock him, but he must take responsibility and be removed from his position,” he said. “He violated the discipline, and clergy must follow the discipline.”
Dou Vandoeun had been filmed singing six songs and performing the traditional Ramvong dance, having been coaxed into the impromptu show by laymen attending the party. It was a performance he defended when reached by telephone on Thursday.
“I sang the songs based on the requests from the people. At first, I pretended to sing down on the ground, but the people requested that I go to sing on the stage,” he said.
“I recognize this was a mistake, but it was minor. I did not sing songs at a karaoke parlor—it was just after Khmer New Year, and everybody was happy,” he said. “People are not angels.”
“I will not refuse, as it was the decision of the senior monks,” he added. “But I think my mistake was not one that should have led to me being removed from my position.”
Indeed, Dou Vandoeun’s offense pales in comparison to crimes committed by other monks over the past six months. In November, the chief of a Siem Reap province pagoda was arrested after admitting to raping 10 teenage boys in his care.
The 46-year-old monk and former career soldier had lived at three other pagodas in the provinces of Kampot, Battambang and Siem Reap in the space of just a few years before being named head of Siem Reap’s Wat Ratanak Moni.
No senior clergy were held responsible for allowing the monk to be in a position to commit such heinous crimes, just as none were when a 68-year-old monk was arrested in Battambang two months later for raping two 9-year-old girls.
“If these things happen, we have to determine whether the district or provincial monk chiefs allowed those crimes to occur,” Khim Sorn, chief of the secretariat for the country’s dominant Mohanikaya Buddhist sect, said on Thursday.
“We will be checking more and more and making judgments on those kinds of issues,” he said.
Opposition lawmaker Keo Phirum, who briefly lived as a monk last year, said he was pleased to hear that Dou Vandoeun had been removed for singing, but added that he hoped authorities would be more proactive in holding senior monks responsible for the crimes plaguing pagodas.
“The Ministry of Religion needs to really look hard into the serious violations of the law by monks because it’s happening more and more. They have a lot of authority, and they need to convene the head monks and tell them to take action,” Mr. Phirum said.
“There are many monks who are not disciplined now, and this is creating a lawless environment among the monks,” he added. “They need to be made to uphold the discipline of Buddhism.”
Officials at the Ministry of Cults and Religion and senior monks like Khim Sorn routinely dismiss reports of rape, murder or drug crimes committed by monks as anomalies that do not reflect the behavior of the wider clergy—despite their growing frequency.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said senior monks should be trying harder to stamp out growing crime in their ranks, even if authorities were correct to deal with individual crimes in the legal sphere.
“Aside from the individual issues, if we talk about the Buddhist religion itself, there is a lot of room to improve in terms of improving the moral standards being practiced in the pagodas,” Ms. Sopheap said.
“There is a leadership structure within the Buddhist monks themselves, and there needs to be a strengthening of discipline there, and so far, I have not seen any efforts, even as things have become chaotic,” she added.
However, Ms. Sopheap said she did not believe any real punishment would ever befall senior clergy who are close to the ruling CPP, which today applies to most members of the Buddhist establishment.
Among others, Cambodia’s top monk, Tep Vong, served in the 1980s as National Assembly vice president for the communist regime that transformed into the CPP to contest the 1993 U.N.-led elections.
Mr. Phirum, the opposition lawmaker, said he believed it was unlikely that senior clergy would ever be sacked for letting rape and violent crime run rampant.
“This is Cambodia. If you’re related to the powerful people, you’re not losing any job, even if you make a lot of mistakes. Should people lose their jobs? Yes, but you have to persuade the authorities to do it.”