The Scope and Limitations of Political Participation by Buddhist Monks in
In “People of Virtue: reconfiguring religion, power and moral order in Cambodia today,” edited by
Alexandra Kent and David Chandler (NIAS Press, 2008).
This paper is about the scope and limitations of political participation by contemporary Cambodian
Buddhist monks. It aims to explore the relationship between Buddhist monks and politics and to
examine the tension arising from conflicting views on and interpretations of the role of Khmer
Buddhist monks in religious and secular, socio-political affairs. It also explores the impact that political
participation by Buddhist monks may have on contemporary Cambodian political life.
The paper is based on data collected from interviews carried out between March and October 2005
with 20 Buddhist monks and 30 laypeople in Phnom Penh and in Kampong Cham province. It also
makes use of my own observations in recent years of debates among Cambodian intellectuals and
scholars and a range of documentary data.
It is often difficult to get people to discuss political issues in present-day Cambodia. I was fortunate
that in my interviews and discussions with laypeople about the roles of Buddhist monks in society and
politics people seemed keen to talk and happy to offer their opinions and reflections. However,
speaking to monks about these topics was considerably harder. Monks often feel uncomfortable
discussing political matters in public or with someone they do not know well. In general, they prefer to
discuss these issues only among themselves. 1 This, they explained to me, is because of warnings issued
by the government after the 1998 uprising in the wake of the national elections, when monks joined in
with a popular protest action. Soon after this protest, the Supreme Buddhist Patriarchs prohibited
monks from participating in the local elections in 2002 and in the national elections in 2003 and in
Monks’ ‘traditional’ role
The Cambodian government often encourages monks to perform a ‘traditional’ role as religious and
moral educators of the people and to uphold the ethical foundations of society. Although the role of the
sangha in government policies for national development and integration has been granted some official
recognition, the government does not openly encourage monks to participate in secular affairs,
claiming that these are its own responsibility. The personal involvement of monks in politics – such as
to campaign for law enforcement or policy implementation – is labeled ‘non-traditional’ (khos-
In recent years, however, Khmer Buddhism has changed in significant ways and monks have become
increasingly involved in politics. This recent political activism of the Khmer sangha recalls the role it
played in social and political affairs in the 1940s and 1950s, when monks protested against the French
colonial regime, demanding freedom, independence and the preservation of Khmer culture and
language. Monks were officially granted the right to vote in elections in the constitutions of 1993.
However, many of them then participated in 1998 in the protests against election irregularities,
claiming also that the ruling party practiced ‘poor governance, corruption, and associated social
ills’.3 At that point, monks joined with the people to demand new leaders for the country.
The participation of Buddhist monks in the general elections and their involvement in political
activities have become extremely sensitive issues for the sangha and the country at large. And this
resulted in subsequent imposition of restrictions upon monks, and limitation of their rights in political
arena. The imposition of restrictions upon monks and limitation of their rights have tended to fuel
opposition to the government within the sangha. Monks who do not agree with the government's
actions are deemed ‘illegal / false monks’4 and this has led to the polarization of two viewpoints –
‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ – regarding the role of Buddhist monks in present-day Cambodia.
The supporters of the ‘traditionalist’ view of monks claim that Buddhism is about teaching ways to
end suffering and attain spiritual liberation and happiness by cultivating one’s peace of mind. Monks,
with their spiritual expertise and religious authority, should therefore educate people to live in
accordance with the principles of Buddhist teachings, especially ‘the Four Noble Truths and the Noble
Eightfold Path’.5 Monks, the argument goes, are not like ordinary people. Upon ordination, they detach
themselves from mundane life and they should therefore adopt a neutral, compassionate stance, like the
disciples of Buddha, and they should act as symbols for people to respect.6 Any involvement in worldly
matters, it is held, will cause attachment and craving, which would hazard the monks’ spiritual
achievements, and they would also be disturbed by politicians seeking support and popularity.
Politicians enter the temples
Buddhist temples depend solely on the popular supports. Although donations to temples from
politicians as well as laypeople provide valued materials for temple construction and for the monks’
subsistence and education, many politicians today come to wats in the name of their political parties.
According to Buddhist monastic principles, monks are supposed to accept all the things that people
offer. In Cambodia today, however, the acceptance of offerings from politicians tends to be viewed as
an act of political alignment. Some monks indeed maintain close relations with certain wealthy, high-
ranking leaders so as to enhance their own status, and secure funds for luxurious, beautiful temple
buildings. In this way, they are able to display the power of their own temple in relation to others. For
many monks and laypeople, however, this kind of relationship is deemed improper for the sangha
because it is seen as political and motivated by personal ambition. Critics argue that monks should be
neutral and pure, while secular politics is a dirty business. Involvement in politics thus destroys
neutrality and the religious prestige of monks as spiritual and moral educators and such monks will lose
the respect and trust of ordinary people.7 The Buddhist sangha, as Yang Sam has suggested, should
therefore 'limit its scope to moral and spiritual issues and leave politics to the State.'8
Nevertheless, many monks, like ordinary community members, nowadays support different political
parties. Yet when these monks align with a party, they are seen as biased, they are less trusted by
people, and they are considered ‘political monks’. The political affiliations of monks thus create
divisions and disharmony among people and among the monks themselves.9 Many argue that to avoid
problems such as these monks should remain neutral and independent of politicians. In this way, it is
proposed, they will earn greater trust from the general public and will remain free to express their own
opinions on different issues. One of the strongest proponents of this viewpoint is the Mahanikay
Supreme Buddhist Patriarch Tep Vong.
The violence of 1998
Those who advocate a traditional role for monks also contend that they do not wish to see more horrific
images of the sangha such as those broadcast in the press in 1998, showing monks being beaten,
kicked, shot at and shocked with electric batons by authorities cracking down on the peaceful
demonstrations. 34 people were killed, including at least two monks in Phnom Penh.10 The events of
1998 have been regarded as the worst action carried out by political authorities in Cambodia since the
Khmer Rouge regime. The violence shocked Cambodian people throughout the country. It created so
much anger among monks, many politicians and people that the authorities were referred to as thmils
(cruel, non-religious people) because ‘only thmils would dare to beat and kill monks’.11
However, the opinions of the monks and those of the authorities diverge on this issue. The
government maintains that monks who joined in the demonstrations were involved in partisan politics,
which falls outside of their religious duties. The monks, on the other hand, argue that they had not been
involved in politics; they were simply marching for peace, expressing their desire for peace and non-
violence. To this day, no proper investigation of this case has been conducted and no one has been held
accountable for the deaths.
After the 1998 protests, the Mohanikay Supreme Buddhist Patriarch Tep Vong and Thommayutnikay
Patriarch Bour Kry signed a public announcement to prevent monks from voting and they informed the
National Election Committee (NEC) that temples and Buddhist buildings should not be used for the
elections. Patriarch Tep Vong subsequently declared that Cambodian Buddhism is incompatible with
voting, and that monks should not use temples to do politics.12 He proclaimed that any monks who
failed to follow the orders were ‘not real monks’,13 and that if any monk was to make a slight mistake,
he would be punished in the wat or could even be expelled from the monkhood if he was involved in a
demonstration.14 To reinforce the Supreme Patriarch’s warnings, the Ministry of Information issued a
command on 16 June 1999 via local television and radio stations that they must submit any Buddhist
monks’ sermons to the Ministry of Cults and Religion for censoring or checking before broadcasting
them. This regulation was reiterated by the Ministry of Information and Ministry of Cults and Religion
on 24 November 2005, after monks had participated in public forums voicing concerns over human
right violations; several activists had been arrested without legal charges for criticizing the government
for their handling of the border conflict with Vietnam. This prohibition in fact has had little effect apart
from creating more resentment among monks, politicians, and laypeople.
The emergence modernist monks
In Cambodia today, many people and monks disagree with the government’s regulation and Supreme
Patriarch’s policy on the sangha. They uphold a new standpoint, seen as (a new emerging) modernist
viewpoint, which promotes engaged Buddhism. Supporters of this view, both monks and laypeople,
want to see monks play more active roles in society – not only traditional roles – particularly in
government programmes for social development. They consider the Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong’s
prohibition to be a form of political manipulation commanded by the ruling party. They contend that
although the Cambodian constitution endows monks with the same rights as all Cambodian citizens,
the ruling party nevertheless prevents monks from exercising their rights since they have seen that new
movements of monks do not support the party.15
These people argue, moreover, that prohibitions such as those pronounced by Tep Vong are
undemocratic and an obstacle to the country’s development. As one monk explained, they believe that
‘the prospering of the religion depends on the welfare of society…when people are poor, society is
weak, and religion will deteriorate’.16 In another interview, a student voiced the following opinion:
Like all Cambodian people, monks are also citizens living under the laws of the state. Monks also have
a duty to fulfill, just as laypeople do…They have social responsibilities for the welfare of the nation
and of all its members.17 In the words of one monk:
We monks live solely on people's daily offerings…if people live vulnerable lives, monks will
also starve…and if we are not concerned with the current vulnerability of the people, we will
all die together…so we have to help people out of dukha.18
In a series of informal interviews, several monks explained that they cannot live in isolation from
social issues – in an individualistic life. They argued that they should address social ills such as
corruption and poverty, gambling, illegal logging, drugs abuse and prostitution, ‘we cannot stand and
watch or ignore the problems around us; otherwise they will get worse and worse’.19 Some condemned
the government for allowing rampant gambling, and they claimed that they wished to hold
demonstrations against the casino construction taking place in Phnom Penh next to the Buddhist
Institute and at other sites along the Cambodian-Thai and Cambodian-Vietnamese borders, but they are
afraid of crackdowns and of being accused of being false monks after the government warnings
following the events of 1998.20 They argue that the government must stop all forms of gambling since
gambling, as one monk noted, is not only prohibited by the Buddhist precepts but it also increases
thefts and violence, including domestic violence.
The way in which monks have become involved in politics in recent years represents a new trend for
the Khmer sangha, and those monks who participate in these trends are considered to be modernist
monks (Preah-sang samay-tum-nueob).
Monks defy the patriarch’s prohibitions
Despite the Cambodian Buddhist Supreme Patriarchs’ warnings and prohibitions upon monks’
participation in politics and the 2003 general elections, hundreds of Buddhist monks defied the orders
and attempted to register for the election. Monks even warned that ‘if monks were not allowed to
register, there would be a demonstration to demand that they be allowed to vote in accordance with the
rights specified in the constitution.’21 To ensure their right to vote, they proposed that the NEC and the
then King, Norodom Sihanouk, should intervene and facilitate their voting.22
Many monks also participated in the controversial Human Rights Day celebration on 10 December
2005 at the Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh, which resulted in the arrests of several local human rights
activists on criminal defamation charges. When one of these was later temporarily released, monks
participated in a public forum held on 15 January 2006 at the Cambodian Center for Human rights
(CCHR) in Phnom Penh. All of those who joined in this forum, including 19 monks, voluntarily gave
thumb prints requesting that the Cambodian government unconditionally release the remaining
detainees and prioritize the law over individual interests23. The participants also criticized the
government for misunderstanding the concept of ‘human rights’ and for using the law court as a tool to
silence its critics.
A few months later CCHR organized a 50 kilometer three-day march cut from Phnom Penh to Udong
Mountain. The march was to spread the message of freedom of expression and non-violence in
Cambodia. It was conducted on behalf of the ‘Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia’, a
coalition of 28 organizations that has protested against criminal defamation. Some 50 monks joined the
walk, claiming, as one of them claimed that,
We need democracy and we need freedom of expression. We don't need one party or another. We do
everything for freedom of expression in Cambodia, for a nonviolent society…a monk is also a citizen,
so we should be able to take part in dissent for the national destiny.24
In interview, monks also recalled the name of Hem Chieu, a Cambodian monk who took the lead in
1942 in opposing French efforts to Romanize the Khmer script and who was considered a heroic
The monks’ viewpoint on this has found strong support from many Cambodians; laypeople generally
regard monks as well-educated and, as a university lecturer told me, ‘compared to many normal people,
they are considered to be senior persons who possess knowledge of good and bad and thus…able to
make better decisions to choose who should be good leaders for the country’.26 It is held by some that
‘taking part in the elections may lead monks away from the state of neutrality, but there is nothing
wrong with letting them join in social work to create prosperity for the people and the country’.27 ‘If
the Supreme Patriarch does not allow the best citizens to take charge of their own country, of their own
future …this is wrong.’28 Many therefore contend that monks should have the right to participate in any
activities that relate to the country's development, as long as they are not partisans or members of any
political party, and do not pursue a political career or work for personal benefits since to do so would
be contrary to the Buddhist Vinaya (Buddhist monastic discipline).
Criticism and change in the sangha’s policy
Many monks criticize Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong for creating difficulties for them when they tried
to register to vote in the 2003 national election. Some of them claim he is ‘a communist monk’, who
favors the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). They contend that although Tep Vong prohibits monks
from involving themselves in politics, he himself is deeply involved.29 Tep Vong claims that Buddhism
promotes calm and peace and prevents envy, while the ambition of political parties is to seek power
and money. He therefore requested that monks abstain from political activities, including
voting.30 However, on 24 June 2003, just prior to the national election, Tep Vong traveled to Svay
Rieng in eastern Cambodia and told monks and nuns there that the CPP led government had achieved a
great deal: construction of roads, schools, hospitals, wats and more.31 The monks viewed this as
outright propaganda that more or less amounted to an election campaign for the CPP. He did not, they
noted, mention corruption or the national property sold by the government. Patriarch Tep Vong, they
said, should look in the mirror to see what he is doing.32
Tep Vong has also been strongly criticized for his comments on political parties in Cambodia. He said
that political parties in Cambodia today are divided into two kinds: ‘the older or host party and ‘the
younger or guest parties’. In that, he named CPP ‘the older or a host party’ and the other parties ‘the
younger or guest parties’, and he thus requested the ‘younger or guest parties to limit their opposition…
insult and… disputes that could lead to war, losing the peace and ownership’… the results achieved by
CPP after 7 January 1979.33 Scholars, NGOs workers and people have blamed Tep Vong for having
been ‘too much attached to and continued to defend the ruling CPP which he belongs to and serve’. 34
They also accused him of categorizing people similarly to what Khmer Rouge leaders had done in
dividing people, when they evacuated them from towns to rural areas, displaced them from one village
to another and regarded the villagers as hosts or ‘old people’ and the newcomers as guests or ‘new
people’. The critics said that ‘Tep Vong goes against the Buddha’s discipline in which Buddhist monks
are not biased’.35
After a lot of criticisms against him, in March 2006 Tep Vong came out and publicly announced that
he would rescind his 2003 voting ban and allow Cambodia’s estimated 60,000 monks to vote in future
elections. He said that he has consulted other monk leaders and would accordingly retract the earlier
ban so that monks would be able to vote in future elections for the development of the nation.36 The
announcement (officially issued in November 29, 2006) seems to have reduced some of the tension
arising from the conflicting views over monks’ civil rights. Tep Vong, however, has also said that his
decision just followed statements encouraging universal participation in elections by the ruling CPP's
renamed and resurrected ‘Solidarity Front for the Development of Cambodia Motherland’.37 In fact,
shortly before the national election in 2003, the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, publicly declared
that it is monks’ right to decide whether to vote or not but that while the constitution grants monks the
right to vote, he did not want to interfere with the two Patriarchs’ decisions: ‘I cannot oppose the
prohibition by the two chief monks, and I also cannot oppose the constitution. The decision is the
individual’s right’.38 His statement can be seen as an attempt to stave off a clash between monks and
the government. Moreover, Hun Sen is now associating himself more closely with monks and villagers
in their community, funding the construction of buildings, schools and ponds in the compounds of
many wats. This might seem to be an attempt to attract more support and to repair the damage done to
the government’s image by the attacks on monks carried out in 1998.
Tep Vong’s decision to rescind the ban surprised many, but has been welcomed by the NEC and many
monks, and by the opposition party, whose leaders have repeatedly claimed that ‘the Supreme
Patriarchs cannot ban monks from voting, because monks are like everybody else and therefore monks
also have the right to vote’.39
What should be noted at this point is that those monks who are in favor of political activism are
generally more socially engaged, though they are not properly organized; they are more concerned with
the present living conditions of this life than the next life. They do not seem to reflect much on the
Buddhist conception of anata, which means ‘non-self’ in Pali. Although the Buddhist teachings, as
those who claim monks should perform a traditional role argue, associate involvement in secular affairs
with attachment to earthly objects and therefore the hazarding of spiritual attainment, these modernist
monks counter that the next life will be determined by what they have achieved in this life time; they
consider that their activities are designed to help people out of desperate life situations and that this will
be meritorious for their own next life.40 They insist, however, that monks must not side with or
participate in political parties, either directly or indirectly. They have to walk a careful line between
activism and politics; they must know their limitation and should avoid extreme positions.
Accordingly, ‘they should be independent of any political parties…they should build their reputation
and influence on their religious roles, with the help of the people on religious and humanitarian action,
and not on partisan interests.’41 Monks should not be affiliated with political parties.42
Can monks be neutral?
In present-day Cambodia, to a large extent, regardless of whether or not the Khmer sangha chooses to
involve itself in politics, it is inevitably drawn into the Cambodian political arena. Politicians
frequently approach monks at wats for support and they often direct their political campaigns to wats,
especially before general elections. Because Buddhism is so deeply respected by so many Khmer
people, political leaders endeavor to associate themselves with Buddhist monks and religious
movements in order to secure and maximize their legitimacy, which then enables them to build a
government, carry out their political plans and consolidate their social control. They mobilize monks to
help them achieve these largely political goals. Since most Cambodian people today are poor, most
rural wats are have little choice but to be subservient to political authority in return for protection and
support. Despite its prestige, the Khmer sangha has not recently been able the exercise its traditional
influence over political authority.
Although individual monks often have relationships with political leaders, when these come to the
wats, the monks rarely have a chance to instruct them about Buddhist dharma and its relevance to their
responsibilities.43 The monks I have interviewed say that politicians use their hands for political
power.44 Although the politicians may seem to be carrying out honest merit-making in the religious
domain, most of the time it is understood rather to be a political exploitation of Buddhism; they are felt
to be engaging in profit-making for political power in the name of religious merit-making.45 Some
monks and laypeople have told politicians not to bring politics into their wats since these are places for
worship and meditation: ‘If politicians come to make merit in the wats, they should not bring with them
the name or poster of their political party, because this will weaken the religion’.46
This chapter has suggested that Cambodia’s development depends upon both improvement of its
governance and empowerment of the Buddhist sangha through the recognition of monks’ secular roles
in state programmes for national development. In Cambodia today, the sangha certainly plays an
important role in society, but it is often under the patronage of political leaders. Cambodian leaders
seem to fear that monks may become the focus of popular movements against them. They realize that
people are likely to follow a monk who takes the lead in a protest action.
Preventing monks from engaging in politics is clearly not generally understood to be about a concern
for their spiritual attainment but is, rather, a way of preventing them from mobilizing political dissent.
No clear distinction can be made in this regard between ‘state politics’ and ‘party politics’. When
Khmer Buddhist monks claim that they have a right to participate in state politics to ensure that the
government implements its policies properly, this may be interpreted as promotion of a single party’s
interests. This, in turn, fuels mistrust between monks, politicians and the people. In some cases it may
also be true that individual monks are in fact involved in a particular political party, for their personal
interests, as noted by Christine Nissen in this volume.
It would be greatly beneficial to Cambodia if monks were allowed to enjoy civil rights and to decide
on matters of general concern. Their rights and roles should not, I contend, be limited to the religious
affairs of the wats, and isolated from the secular affairs of the state. By virtue of their religious status
and leadership potential, they could be powerful instruments for seeing that government policies are
correctly implemented.47 To do this, they need to develop their participation in secular affairs rather
than confining their activities to only studying and preaching, as spiritual educators. This means
extending their activities to greater involvement in the community and the country as a whole, keeping
people informed about the social, political and economic situation, making efforts to repair the
deteriorating moral order (see Heng Monychenda in this volume) by teaching people and leaders how
to apply the Buddhist dhamma to their daily lives.
Khmer Buddhist monks, I believe, should play not only a legitimizing but also a critical role in
relation to the state. This could then be a constructive force for the improvement and reconstruction of
the social well-being and political life of the country.
However, in order to strengthen Cambodian Buddhism certain factors require reconfiguring; the civil
rights of monks need to be clearly defined, the administration of the sangha – particularly ordination
and daily work – needs to be improved and properly regulated.48 Similarly, as Khy Sovanratana notes
in this volume, monks’ education, both religious and secular, needs improvement in order that monks
become qualified to advise and teach the general public,49 and so that their voices may gain an
authority with which the political leaders must reckon.
1 I am grateful to Mr Hak Sraon, Sok Chhay, Say Mony and V. Saron and V. Buntheourn, for their
help in introducing me to several monks and thus facilitating my fieldwork.
2 All of my informants requested to remain anonymous in my research and I do not, therefore, refer to
anyone by name.
3 See, Ian Harris (2005) Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practices. Honolulu: University of
Hawai’i Press, p. 220.
4 Nadezda Bektimirova (2003) ‘The Sangha in Politics: Challenges and Consequences.’ Phnom Penh
Post, November 21– December 4, p. 6.
5 Interviews, Phnom Penh, 15 April 2005. The Four Noble Truths: 1. The truth that life is suffering, 2.
The truth that the cause of suffering is selfish craving for satisfaction of sensual delights, 3. The truth
that the end of suffering is the end of selfish craving, 4. The truth that the path leading to the end of
suffering is called the ‘eightfold path’. The eightfold path consists of: 1. Right understanding (of the
Four Noble Truths), 2. Right intention/purpose, 3. Right speech, 4. Right action/conduct (obeying the
five precepts of not killing, not stealing, not lying, not having illicit sexual relations, and not taking
intoxicating drinks), 5. Right livelihood/vocation, 6. Right effort, 7. Right mindfulness/concentration,
8. Right contemplation/meditation. Buddhists are supposed to know the Truth and the Path in order to
acquire true knowledge which leads to Enlightenment, the end of all rebirths and suffering, to nirvana.
See Heng Sreang (2005) Introduction to World Philosophy. Phnom Penh: Pannasatra University of
Cambodia, pp. 81–82.
6 Interviews in Phnom Penh, 15 April 2005.
7 Interviews with students, Phnom Penh, 30 May 2005.
8 Yang Sam (1987) Khmer Buddhism and Politics from 1954 to 1984. Newington: Khmer Studies
Institute, Inc., p. 40.
9 Interviews with students, Phnom Penh, 5 April 2005, and a monk in Kampong Cham province, 18
10 According to the Cambodian Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (COHCHR),
however, the number of monk casualties was uncertain. COHCHR estimated that the number of deaths
was greater than that given in the official report. After the uprising, the Commission found that in
Phnom Penh at least 34 people were killed in August and September 1998 alone. 77 people, including
18 monks and a nun, were injured. More than 50 people, including 4 monks, were arrested and these
people have not been seen since then. The report of the Special Representative of the United Nations
Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia (August 20–October 28, 1998) stated that the bodies
of some victims, including one monk, were found near Pochentong airport, on the outskirts of Phnom
Penh and in the river. On 11th September, the body of a man in his early 20s, with shaven head and
eyebrows, was found near the bank of the Mekong River, by the Prek Krabao pagoda in Otdom village,
Peam Chhor district, Prey Veng province. The pagoda authorities believed this to be the body of a
monk, although the body was dressed in what appeared to be a policeman’s shirt, oversized trousers
and no underwear. It was buried in the yard of the pagoda. See ‘Cambodia Struggling for Justice and
Peace’ (Report of Missions on the 1998 Cambodian Elections), Asian Network for Free Elections
(AMFREL), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Thailand: Bangkok, February 1999,
pp. 53–6 & 94; also, Ian Harris (2005) Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practices. Honolulu:
University of Hawai’i Press, p. 217.
11’Samdech Krom Preah: Only Thmils Kill Monks.’ Udom Katte Khmer Newspaper, 9 September
1998 (accessed through The Mirror, 6–12 September, 1998, p. 8).
12 Samantha Melamed and Pin Sisovann (2006) ‘Monks Ponder Their Role in the Public Square.’ The
Cambodia Daily (Wednesday, 8 March, p. 2)
13 Chea Sotheacheath and James Eckardt (1998) ‘Activist monks Dare to Defy Authority.’ Phnom
Penh Post 12–17 September, p.2.
14 Nguyen Xuan Bach and staff. ‘Old Debate on Pagoda Politics: A Rising Phoenix.’ (accessed
15 Discussion with three monks in Phnom Penh, 15 May 2005, and interviews in Kampong Cham
province, 30 May 2005. The Cambodian constitution (promulgated in Phnom Penh on 21 September,
1993) article 34 states that ‘citizens of either sex shall have the right to vote and to stand as candidates
for the election.’ Many Cambodian monks regard themselves as citizens of the state, and therefore
consider participation in voting to be fulfillment of their civic duty.
16 Discussion with three monks in Phnom Penh, 15 May 2005.
17 Interviews with students, Phnom Penh, 30 May 2005.
18 Discussion with two monks in Phnom Penh, 10 June 2005. The term dukkha, in Pali, means
suffering, by which the monks refer to the hardships and poverty of the people or of the country.
19 Discussion with three monks in Phnom Penh, 15 May 2005
20 Discussion with two monks in Kampong Cham province, 18 August 2005.
21 ‘Monks Protest Against Tep Vong’s Announcement, Demand Right to Participate in Deciding
Future of Country.’ Moneakseka Khmer Newspaper, 22 January 2003 (accessed through The Mirror,
19 January 2003, p. 7)
22 Yun Samean and Kevin Doyle (2003) ‘Against Decree, Monks Try to Register to Vote.’ The
Cambodia Daily, Tuesday, February 18th, p. 12.
23 Following the arrests of its chief and deputy chief, the CCHR opened a public forum to call for
support from the general public for its request that the government stop arresting activists and release
all of those already in custody. The CCHR asked people to submit signatures, names or thumb prints
for petitioning to the king for his intervention. Those monks who joined the forum also submitted their
24 See, Samantha Melamed and Pin Sisovann (2006) ‘Monks Ponder Their Role in the Public Square.’
The Cambodia Daily, Wednesday, 8 March, p. 2.
25 Hem Chieu helped organize opposition in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in the country in the 1940s.
This led to his arrest for treason and sedition in 1942. He was then sent to Saigon, where he was
imprisoned (on Koh Tralach for Khmer, Con Son Island for Vietnam, Poulo Condore for Europeans).
He died in 1943 at the age of 46. See Henri Locard (2005) ‘Haem Chiev, 1898–1943: The Umbrella
Demonstration of 20th July 1942 and the Buddhist Institute Under the Vichy Regime.’ In The Buddhist
Institute Colloquium: Researching Buddhism and Culture in Cambodia, 1930–2005. Phnom Penh: The
Buddhist Institute, 17 June, pp.20–38.
26 Interview with a university lecturer and 5 students, Phnom Penh, 10 April 2005.
27 Interview with a university lecturer, Phnom Penh, 10 April 2005.
28 Nguyen Xuan Bach and staff. ‘Old Debate on Pagoda Politics: A Rising Phoenix.’ (accessed
29 ‘Is Patriarch Samdech Tep Vong a Political Tool of CPP?’ Wat Phnom Newspaper, Friday 27 June
2003, (accessed through The Mirror, 22 June 2003–28 June 2003, p. 12).
30 Samantha Melamed and Pin Sisovann (2006) ‘Monks Ponder Their Role in the Public Square.’ The
Cambodia Daily, Wednesday, 8 March, p. 2.
31 ‘Is Patriarch Samdech Tep Vong a Political Tool of CPP?’ Wat Phnom Newspaper, Friday, 27 June
2003, (accessed through The Mirror, 22 June 2003–28 June 2003, p. 12).
32 ‘Is Patriarch Samdech Tep Vong a Political Tool of CPP?’ Wat Phnom Newspaper, Friday, 27 June
2003, (accessed through The Mirror, 22 June 2003–28 June 2003, p. 12).
33 Sam Rith and Charles McDermid (2006) ‘Great Supreme Patriarch.’ Phnom Penh Post, December
15–December 28, p.2.
34 Lao Mong Hay (2007) ‘Equanimity Would Be.’ Phnom Penh Post, December 29–January 11, p. 15.
35 Yun Samean (2007) ‘Tep Vong Accused of Favoritism, Going Against Buddha.’ The Cambodia
Daily Tuesday, 9 January, p. 16.
36 Lor Chandara (2006) ‘Buddhist Leader To Lift Ban on Monks Voting.’ The Cambodia Daily,
Thursday, 4 May, p.16.
37 Lor Chandara (2006) ‘Buddhist Leader To Lift Ban on Monks Voting.’ The Cambodia Daily,
Thursday, 4 May, p.16.
38 ‘Hun Sen: Voting or not Voting are Monks’ Rights.’ Kampuchea Thmey Newspaper, 24 January
2003, (accessed through The Mirror, 19–25 January, p. 9)
39 ‘Hun Sen: Voting or not Voting are Monks’ Rights.’ Kampuchea Thmey Newspaper, 24 January
2003, (accessed through The Mirror, 19–25 January, p. 9)
40 Discussion with 3 monks, Phnom Penh, 15 May 2005.
41 Discussion with 3 monks, Phnom Penh, 15 May 2005.
42 The Center for Social Development (2001) Good Governance-Public Forum-Elections. (A monthly
research bulletin, No. 076), Phnom Penh, January, p. 30.
43 The Cambodian monk, Preah Maha Ghosananda, famed for having initiated annual peace walks in
1992, mentioned this several times. In 1997, after the armed conflict on 5th–6th of July in Phnom Penh,
the head of the department of philosophy at the Royal University of Phnom Penh invited Preah Maha
Ghosananda to give a lecture on Buddhist philosophy. He talked about non-violence and the step-by–
step approach to peace. He said that he had met many top government officials and given his book Step
by Step to each of them, begging them to use peaceful means to solve conflicts. But, he said, this had
had little effect. In 1998 the government again used violence to crackdown on peaceful demonstrations
held by students, laypeople and monks.
44 Interviews with two monks in Phnom Penh, July 10, 2005, and a monk in Kampong Cham
province, 5 August 2005.
45 Monk interviews in Kampong Cham province, 5 August 2005.
46 Interview with monks, Kampong Cham province, 5 August 2005.
47 This potential has become explicit in various recent events. Between March and April 2006, monks
set out on a walk through the western provinces of Battambang and Banteay Meanchey, visiting
pagodas and schools to raise awareness about the environment and HIV/AIDS, and to promote
community participation to solve social problems. See, Samantha Melamed and Pin Sisovann (2006)
‘Monks Ponder Their Role in the Public Square.’ The Cambodia Daily, Wednesday, 8 March, p. 1.
48 By this I mean ordination and daily activities should be regulated according to the monastic rules.
Several monks have recently been found to have cheated people and some simply use temples as
residences while they earn money for themselves by seeking alms in improper places such as in
49 This educational task has begun recovery. Monks have founded ‘Buddhist Centers’ in Phnom Penh,
Kandal and Battambang provinces and elsewhere, providing moral education and training in skills such
as computer literacy and foreign languages. See, Samantha Melamed and Pin Sisovann (2006) ‘Monks
Ponder Their Role in the Public Square.’ The Cambodia Daily, Wednesday, 8 March, pp. 1–2.