A prominent Cambodian environmental activist monk has been barred from entering pagodas in his home province after he participated in protests against rain-forest destruction in the country.
Chum Kemleng, the highest-ranked monk in Siem Reap, ordered the ban Friday in an open letter to the monastic community, preventing all Buddhist temples in the province from hosting Loun Sovath, who has also been an ardent campaigner for land rights.
In April, he was banned from entering pagodas in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh for participating in land protests.
Pagodas customarily host traveling monks who are in need of a place to stay.
In the letter, Chum accused Loun Sovath, 30, of violating the laws of Buddhism and his sangha (monastic order) when he joined 100 villagers in a demonstration defending Prey Lang forest from development on Thursday in Phnom Penh.
The villagers, joined by monks and environmental activists, wore dress and make-up inspired by the blockbuster movie "Avatar," which depicts the destruction of a forest on an alien world and its inhabitants' bloody fight to protect their home from miners.
According to an unnamed official from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, Loun Sovath is now hiding in an undisclosed location because he fears for his safety.
The same agency had helped Loun Sovath after he was slapped with the ban in April.
The U.N. official said Monday that Buddhist authorities in Siem Reap province contacted by the world body had confirmed the ban and that it would only be lifted if the monk agreed to end public support for protesters and “confess his wrongdoings” to the official Buddhist Sangha Council.
Loun Sovath told RFA after he was informed of the ban that he had done nothing wrong.
“I participated with the people to help them seek justice and to share the hardships of those who have suffered human rights violations such as the loss of their homes and land at the hands of private companies,” he said.
“[But], we distributed leaflets that revealed social issues which are relevant to politics.”
Police arrested Loun Sovath and the villagers as they gathered outside the capital Phnom Penh's royal palace on Thursday for a religious ceremony and distributed leaflets defending the Prey Lang forest covering 3,600 square kilometers (1,400 square miles).
The protesters were held for nearly three hours before they were released.
Following their release, Loun Sovath told RFA that he and the villagers had gathered to "pray" for the protection of all forests, especially the Prey Lang forest in northern Cambodia, adding that they should not have been arrested.
“We are protecting Cambodian forests. The authorities should not prevent us. We were only distributing leaflets [appealing for forest protection]. The authorities should not be alarmed by that. This is a kind of human rights abuse,” he said.
In an April 26 directive, Non Ngeth, the supreme patriarch of the Maha Nikaya branch of Cambodian Buddhism, said Loun Sovath's participation in land protests ran “counter to the teachings of the Buddha” and was “damaging to the religion’s reputation.”
Ou Virak, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said at the time that Non Ngeth’s letter also represented a political abuse of Buddhism, which he said does not prohibit social activism.
In June, 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.
Villagers say that Prey Lang forest, which some green groups claim is the region's largest lowland evergreen forest, is critical to the survival of about 200,000 people, concerned about illegal logging and concessions granted for the cultivation of rubber crop and exploitation of minerals.
Most of the wood from Prey Lang is smuggled into China and Vietnam where it is made into furniture and exported worldwide, some environmental groups have charged.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a statement last week that development in the forest had "accelerated markedly" recently with concessionaires clearing forest areas in order to create rubber plantations.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen said in February that the country's forests must be protected in order to avoid environmental problems. “We can protect the forest to help reduce climate change,” he was quoted saying by local media reports.
Hun Sen wanted economic land concessions for rubber plantations not to exceed a total of 300,000 hectares, the reports said. At that time, Cambodia had 181,500 hectares of rubber plantations.
Reported by Tin Zakariya for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry and Vuthy Huot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.