Defrocked Cambodian monk flees to Thailand, resumes religious life there

Venerable Soy Sat marched across the country, calling for the restoration of social ethics.
By RFA Khmer
2023.03.16
Defrocked Cambodian monk flees to Thailand, resumes religious life there Buddhist monk Soy Sat (2nd from L) is seen during his march across Cambodia in early February.
Citizen journalist

A Buddhist monk arrested and defrocked while peacefully marching across Cambodia has fled the country, citing concerns over his security, and moved to neighboring Thailand where he has resumed his religious duties.

Venerable Soy Sat, 72, began marching across Cambodia earlier this year to urge the government to restore social ethics and resolve national issues. 

 Police in Battambang province arrested him on March 9 and took him to a local temple where he was defrocked for allegedly being affiliated with the opposition Candlelight Party.

After they released him, he made his way across the border to resume his religious life as a monk at a Thai Buddhist temple.

Soy Sat told Radio Free Asia on Thursday that he wanted to stay in Cambodia, but he no longer felt safe there because authorities from Battambang to the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, were still surveilling his movements and activities.

“I received many threats, so I left Cambodia so that the world knows that Cambodia is restricting freedom of expression,” he said.

Once he believes it is safe, Soy Sat said he would continue his campaign via social media. 

“As a monk, I will fight for social ethic restoration that is declining to become an acceptable society,” he said. 

Earlier, Soy Sat walked with Rong Chhun, a labor leader and vice president of the opposition Candlelight Party, and other demonstrators from Phnom Penh to Pursat province, prompting accusations that he was tied to the political party. 

The monk also had been expelled from his pagoda in Kampong Speu province on accusations of incitement and of trying to destroy peace, which he denied. He later was detained by police when he arrived in Pursat.

An unusual move

Defrockings of Buddhist monks who participate in demonstrations are highly unusual in Cambodia where monks occupy their own social class and are given a great deal of respect by the public.

But in the run-up to July’s election showdown between the Candlelight Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, authorities have been arresting opposition figures on what critics say are politically motivated charges.

Support for the CPP has dropped in the past decade amid chronic corruption within the party and the government, which opponents say has led to human rights violations, deteriorating social ethics and a culture of impunity.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan denied that authorities were intimidating Soy Sat and accused him of being biased toward the Candlelight Party. 

“No one arrested him,” Sok Ey told RFA. “They only questioned him and then set him free. If he doesn't commit a crime, no one will do anything against him.”

Ny Sokha, director of the human rights organization Adhoc, said Soy Sat did nothing wrong and that his defrocking and surveillance by authorities violated his freedom.

“This action had caused him to fear for his safety,” he said. 

Authorities have also filed a court case against the monk for allegedly encroaching on protected forestland, though Soy Sat has denied the charge. 

Translated by Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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