Cambodia’s top Buddhist patriarch Tep Vong on Wednesday formally lifted his ban on monks voting, but warned them not to engage in “people power” and urged the Buddhist clergy to remain grateful to the ruling CPP.
Presiding over the annual Buddhist Monk Congress at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theater, Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong asked that all monks show thanks to the CPP’s leadership for its role in “saving the country from the Khmer Rouge.”
“Don’t engage in [political] party solidarity leading to people power,” Tep Vong warned. “Unity for people power is not a possibility, as Prime Minister Hun Sen said earlier,” he added.
Tep Vong had previously forbidden monks from voting in the 2003 national election, despite their being allowed to do so by law. In May, he signaled that he was going to lift the ban, but it was not until Wednesday that any official decision to end the restriction was announced.
Tep Vong asked monks to thank Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly and Honorary CPP President Heng Samrin for liberating Cambodia.
He said that by showing their gratitude, monks would be able to “live up to the January 7 dharma,” referring to the date in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were driven from Phnom Penh by a Vietnamese-backed army.
In an earlier incarnation, Tep Vong was elected vice president of the 1981 National Assembly of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, a precursor of the current CPP government.
Veering away from politics, Tep Vong also recommended a temporary halt to new pagoda construction in Cambodia, saying that more attention needs to be paid to maintaining and improving existing pagodas.
“We have more than 4,000 pagodas, that is enough,” he said.
Several monks in attendance said they were afraid of commenting on Tep Vong’s remarks.
But San Savuth, a monk with the royalist—affiliated Dhammayut sect, said he did not approve of Tep Vong-the former head of the rival Mohanikaya sect—calling for a halt to pagoda construction.
“We don’t have enough pagodas for the Dhammayut sect,” he said, adding that his denomination only has 129 pagodas.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, applauded the announcement that monks would be allowed to vote.
“There is no [legal] provision saying that monks cannot vote,” she said. “It is good that the leaders did this.”
But Kek Galabru expressed some concern over Tep Vong’s comments on people power. “People power” typically refers to the popular protest movements in the Philippines that have led to the ouster of two presidents—most famously in the case of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
“It depends on what he understands by people power,” she said. “He wants maybe to tell monks not to participate in protests…. International law does not say that monks or priests cannot join in [peaceful] protests.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay also welcomed the decision to allow monks to vote, but dismissed Tep Vong’s comments on people power.
Monks have always played an important role in opposing authoritarian rule in Cambodia, he said.
“Monks have always been involved in people power,” he said. “People power is already there and it doesn’t matter how you try to suppress it.”
Son Chhay also blasted Tep Vong for requesting praise for the CPP leadership.
“Even the religious institutions can’t be relied on to not be affiliated with the ruling party,” Son Chhay said. “What [Tep Vong] said was bad for himself and bad for the country.”