Cambodian parties fight for monks' backing
With eight months to go before elections in Cambodia, the country's Buddhist monks are torn over whether they should vote.
The battle over the monks' ballots reflects a wider struggle by some politicians to seek the influential backing of a Buddhist clergy pondering its role in a democratic future.
Cambodia's Buddhist clergy is dominated by two sects, both led by patriarchs who have called on monks not to vote.
Tep Vong heads the Mohanikay sect which covers more than 90 per cent of the monkhood, while Bou Kry leads the tiny Tomayuth sect.
Early last month, both men issued letters calling on their followers to eschew politics by refusing to vote. A legislator, Keo Remy, became so concerned about the threat to monks' electoral rights that on October 15, he wrote to King Norodom Sihanouk for help. 'This appears to violate the freedom and rights of monks to vote as well as to abuse state law,' he wrote.
'The voting right of the monks does not mean that the monks engage in politics and does not affect [their] neutrality . . . On the contrary, all monks have the right to choose their representatives to defend their benefits.'
The potential for Buddhist monks to play a role in Cambodia's often brutal politics was highlighted on the eve of the recent Asean summit in Phnom Penh. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy tried to stage a hunger strike from within the walls of Phnom Penh's Wat Ounalom, to protest the meeting.
After several hours of tense negotiations and alleged jostling of his bodyguards and supporters by the police, Sam Rainsy was forced to leave by leading monks who feared trouble with the government.
In Sam Rainsy's view, the Mohanikay leader is an overt supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen and this discredits both Tep Vong's calls for neutrality in the monkhood, and the monkhood itself.
By contrast, says Sam Rainsy, Bou Kry is a former mentor who is more sympathetic to the opposition - although the monk has insisted otherwise.
'This is a very sensitive issue,' admits Sam Rainsy. 'It reflects a different conception of the monkhood's commitment to society, which clashes with the philosophy of the hierarchy.' The leadership is putting pressure on monks to stay out of politics, he says.
Sam Rainsy claims Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) maintains a network of support throughout the clergy by dispensing financial favours, and aims to promote a passive Buddhist theology which emphasises fatalism and reduces the faith to a non-threatening 'opiate of the people'.
Although few people can be found to support this view on the record, some agree with the general analysis.
'Certainly the CPP controls the monkhood, and the Buddhist clergy is known to be influential in society,' said human rights expert Lao Mong Hay.
He said Buddhism was undergoing a revival alongside other religions in Cambodia, but efforts by politicians to subordinate Buddhism to their needs were weakening the faith.
He said monks had told him the way to rise in the hierarchy was to pay bribes, and that Tep Vong and his Mohanikay sect had long been close to the ruling party. By contrast, there were few progressive monks and their activities were vulnerable to state repression.
Two monks were killed and several were badly beaten during public protests and a peace march after the CCP's victory in the 1998 election.
'I think the two patriarchs are trying to avoid that happening again, but I don't know if they were told to do so by the leading politicians,' Lao Mong Hay said.