Hundreds of monks have left Phnom Penh and returned to their home provinces, while some are still missing and feared dead, their colleagues said this week.
A survey of four of the city’s largest wats indicated the number of monks is down by nearly 600, or roughly 50 percent, since police cracked down on opposition protesters last week. The wats or pagodas surveyed were Botum, Langka, Mohamantrey and Ounalom.
Monks have fled to the countryside “because they are scared and no one wants to get hurt,” said Noun Ngeth, chief of Wat Botum. Others are for the most part staying inside their wats.
In apparent recognition of the problem, King Norodom Sihanouk on Wednesday wrote a letter to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, asking him to “authorize the Buddhist monks to have rights going in and out of the pagoda as usual….It is time for Bun Pchum Ben festival, and they need to go out to collect food…[and] organize our national custom festival.”
Khieu Sopheak, Ministry of Interior spokesman, wasn’t aware specifically of the King’s letter but said, “The police are not prohibiting the monks from participating in religious activities.”
Last week, however, police did go into some wats to “persuade” monks not to participate in the protests, he said. Several monks were seen viciously beaten in crackdowns across the city.
Government officials contend that the monks weren’t “targeted” in the crackdown, but were violating the Buddhist principles of political neutrality. Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also claimed last week that about 20 percent of the monks were “fake monks” used by the opposition to encourage others to demonstrate. Many others were novices, he said.
While experts agreed last week that there should be some restraint to monk activism, they noted that Buddha himself had exhorted followers to advocate democracy and human rights.
Monks interviewed Tuesday were reluctant to disclose their names. A group of monks at Mohamantrey Pagoda said more than 250 of 415 monks have left and five were still missing from last Thursday.
The student monks maintained that they had marched for peace only, and hadn’t taken political sides. To the government, they called for an end to the violence and one said: “Please stop broadcasting that the monks are Sam Rainsy or Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s bodyguards.”
A monk at Wat Ounalom said at least 170 monks fled after police entered the wat last week. He said gunshots were fired and he saw police use their batons to strike about 10 monks on the arms, legs and even heads.
At Wat Langka, 120 of 160 monks reportedly have left, and at least one is missing, and at Wat Botum, 40 out of 120 have fled.
But Noun Ngeth, the chief of Wat Botum, indicated little sympathy for any monks who had advocated that Second Prime Minister Hun Sen step down.
“For what reason?” he asked, adding that Hun Sen has been responsible for the construction of many schools and pagodas across the country.