A monk in western Cambodia who was defrocked on Monday after observing a political debate ahead of local commune elections has accused his superiors of being politically biased.
Ung Kaing, 25, said he was defrocked after attending a debate along with an activist from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), of which he was previously a member. He had left the SRP after taking his vows of monkhood.
According to Cambodia’s commune election law, monks are allowed to vote, but may not participate in political activities or run as candidates. Commune elections will take place on June 3.
The young monk told RFA’s Khmer service on Tuesday that 68-year-old Pot Pun, the chief monk of the Suriya Rongkor Pagoda in Siem Reap province’s Sort Nikum district, had dismissed him from the fold because he did not agree with the policies of the SRP.
“I didn’t agree with his decision to defrock me. I opposed it,” Ung Kaing said.
“He was putting pressure on me because he was biased toward political parties.”
Ung Kaing said that before being defrocked, Pot Pun had also questioned him about his involvement with the SRP in an earlier political debate.
Pot Pun told RFA that he made the decision to defrock Ung Kaing because he had lied to him about going to retrieve medicine from outside of the pagoda when he had really attended the debate.
But he admitted that he had been pressured by higher level monks to kick the monk out of the pagoda.
“The top monks told me that he had breached the law and must be defrocked,” he said.
“Top officials had asked me [about the monk], so in order not to make trouble for myself, I did it.”
SRP District Director Porm Pung confirmed that Ung Kaing had been a party activist, having initially joined the party in 2010.
He said that local party leaders had volunteered the monk as a candidate in Sort Nikum district for the position of commune councilor in Khjash commune, though Ung Kaing maintains that he had never asked to run, which he is prohibited from doing by law.
Monks and politics
According to Cambodia’s commune elections law, anyone, including monks, can vote for commune councilors as long as they are a Cambodian citizen, 18 years of age by the day of the election, and reside in the commune. Only convicts are unable to register to vote.
But the Sangha, or monastic, community has been increasingly divided over politics since monks were given the right to vote in 1993 during the country’s first elections since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Currently, a small group of politically active monks known as the “young monks”—most of whom are members of the SRP—voice public opposition to the current government, while some senior monks have opposed this activism and called for their arrest or defrocking.
In August last year, Cambodian environmental activist monk Luon Savath was barred by the official Buddhist Sangha Council from entering pagodas in his home province of Siem Reap after participating in protests against rainforest destruction.
Pagodas customarily host traveling monks who are in need of a place to stay.
He was told that the ban would be lifted only if he agreed to end public support for the protesters and “confess his wrongdoings” to the council.
The order followed an earlier one in April, when Luon Savath was banned from entering pagodas in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh for participating in land protests.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said at the time that the ban represented a political abuse of Buddhism, which does not prohibit social activism.
In June 2011, the New York-based Human Rights Watch awarded Loun Sovath with the Hellman/Hammett grant for his work supporting communities facing forced evictions and land-grabbing in Cambodia.
Luon Savath told RFA that no pagoda has been willing to host him since the ban.
Reported by Hang Savyouth for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.