Plainclothes officers in Cambodia’s Battambang province are monitoring the temple home of a group of activist monks after they called for the release of one of their number, who was arrested last week after posting a photo of himself on social media posing with a gun, a leading monk said Tuesday.
Lonh Sokchea, of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, told RFA’s Khmer Service that “several plainclothes police” have been “spying” on his group’s activities since he and 50 other members protested in front of the Battambang Provincial Court on June 22 demanding the release of fellow monk Horn Sophanny.
“We feel that our efforts to advocate peacefully for the release of our fellow monk Venerable Horn Sopanny are hamstrung and frustrated,” he said, adding that he and other monks feel “intimidated and worried” by the police presence.
“On top of that, we feel the imminent pressure of more restrictions being inflicted upon us to the point that we believe the detained monk will be held for a much longer period.”
Deputy provincial police chief of Battambang Cheth Vanny on Tuesday dismissed Lonh Sokchea’s claim that police officers had been deployed to monitor monks at the temple.
“It’s not true—I haven’t been informed of this,” he told RFA.
“If you want to know more about this, you should call the Provincial Department of Religion.”
In April, Horn Sophanny, 24, posted a photo of himself posing with a gun in his monk’s robes on Facebook, accompanied by criticism of the government and a statement claiming that the gun was real and would be used if Prime Minister Hun Sen’s warnings of civil war—had his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost recent commune elections—come true.
Horn Sophanny was arrested on June 21 for illegal possession of a weapon and incitement to commit a crime, but monks from the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice maintain the gun was a toy and say he was targeted because of his political activism and monitoring of the June 4 ballot.
The young monk, who has also been defrocked, is currently in prison awaiting trial.
But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, has slammed Battambang authorities for “joining hands” with provincial prosecutors to make an example of Horn Sophanny, who he contends was too young to know any better and should be reprimanded by his group’s head monks within the temple.
Yin Mengly, Banteay Meanchey province coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, called the deployment of police to monitor monks at a temple “a threat which infringes on the rights of the monks to carry out their daily activities.”
He told RFA that the move indicates that the authorities might be “worried about the monks, who could [continue] to protest for the release of their fellow monk.”
“As long as monks don’t carry out illegal activities, they shall be allowed to [protest],” he said.
“They are not against the law or the government. They are not advocating for a color revolution. We have noted that those monks have benefited local communities through social work. Such activities should be encouraged not discouraged.”
Over the weekend, two spokesmen from the Ministry of Justice warned But Buntenh against protesting on Horn Sophanny’s behalf, saying his continued pressure for the monk’s release is “not good for him or the suspect,” according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
Reported by Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.