Police in Phnom Penh arrested two young monks Wednesday morning who were allegedly transporting two bags filled with more than 100 bamboo poles to the restive Samakki Raingsey pagoda, where they were due to accompany villagers in a protest later that day, police and officials said.
Most—possibly all—of the poles were attached to Cambodian and Buddhist flags.
The monks—Thach Sang, 19, and Khit Vannak, 20—were arrested at about 7 a.m. and sent directly to the municipal police headquarters, according to Phorn Thavy, head of the municipal department of cults and religion, who questioned the pair along with police.
“There is nothing wrong with transporting and carrying bamboo poles with flags attached, but it’s too coincidental that they were found transporting them to a place where there is an issue occurring,” Mr. Thavy said.
Mr. Thavy said the monks told him the poles belonged to activist monk Soeung Hai, who was sentenced to one year in prison Wednesday evening for peacefully protesting outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday against the arrest of seven activists the day before.
Deputy municipal police chief Chuon Narin said the pair was also defrocked Wednesday.
“We defrocked the two monks and we will send them to the court tomorrow,” he said.
Activist monk Luon Sovath, who was at the pagoda in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey commune—which regularly houses protesters who travel to the capital to draw attention to land disputes in their home provinces—said Mr. Sang and Mr. Vannak were arrested about 50 meters from the front gates, having walked from the Stung Meanchey pagoda.
Luon Sovath said the monks were en route to Samakki Raingsey to join farmers from Preah Vihear province who are involved in a land dispute there and had planned to march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house and the National Assembly.
He said all of the bamboo sticks the two monks were arrested with were already attached to Cambodian and Buddhist flags. A photo of the flags posted to the Facebook page of Justice Ministry Undersecretary of State Kim Santepheap seems to confirm this.
“There is no law banning Buddhist monks and common people from carrying the country’s flag and religious flags,” Luon Sovath said. “It is common for flag poles to be made from bamboo and plastic.”
According to Mao Savoeun, Stung Meanchey chief of police, the two arrested monks were carrying 124 bamboo poles measuring 90 cm.
While Luon Sovath said that some 200 armed police, military police and soldiers were stationed outside the pagoda at about 9:30 a.m. to prevent the villagers and monks from setting out on their march, all but about 20 had apparently dispersed by 10 a.m.
About 100 villagers from Preah Vihear’s Choam Ksan district have been staying at the pagoda for the past two months. Eighteen of them were injured during a clash with Daun Penh district security guards after attempting to deliver a petition to Mr. Hen Sen’s house last month.
Thach Ha Sam Ang, the deputy chief monk at the Samakki Raingsey pagoda, said he believes the arrests Wednesday were linked to the monks’ involvement in anti-Vietnamese protests outside the Vietnamese Embassy last month.
“We have no hope that they will be released because [Cambodian] authorities got their orders to arrest them from the Vietnamese government,” he said.