Tuesday, 10 February 2015; News by Khmer Times/Donald Lee and Nov Sivutha
PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Rapturous applause greeted Chief Monk Thach Ha Sam Ang yesterday at the entrance of the Samaki Raingsey pagoda following the announcement that City Hall authorities would not shut down the temple and would help the pagoda attain proper accreditation.
The announcement came after a tense hour-and-a-half meeting between the pagoda’s top officials and authorities investigating the pagoda over a number of issues including accreditation, internal violence and “anti-government acts.”
“I’m happy that the Phnom Penh authority has come here to help prepare [the pagoda] for proper accreditation,” Chief Ang said.
“My pagoda had accreditation from the commune, but our full certification as a temple was not complete,” he said. “We still lack approval and certification from the Ministry of Religion.”
Rumors had circulated locally that the murder of deputy monk Thach Khan last month by an 18-year-old monk would be used as a pretext to shut down the pagoda, which has been a hotbed of political activism. The temple is renowned among victims of land evictions who come to protest in the capital and frequently hosts activist figures such as monk Loun Sovath.
“We came here to investigate the legitimacy of the pagoda and to find information on the murder of the deputy monk,” said Khuon Sreng, Phnom Penh deputy governor and head of the investigation committee.
City Hall authorities determined that the pagoda was not certified, but assured that they would work with the pagoda to make it legitimate rather than shut it down.
“I found that the pagoda did not have the certification needed,” Mr. Sreng said. “We will check all the monks here to see if they have the right authorization for monkhood.”
Earlier in the day, monks, land activists and armed police poured into the pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Steung Meanchey district ahead of the investigation team. Armed police in bullet-proof vests took up positions at the temple’s entrance as roughly a hundred activists and people claiming to be victims of land evictions awaited the announcement on whether the temple would be shut down.
Activists Await Decision
Boeung Kak Lake land activist Saith Pa was among those waiting anxiously for the announcement on Tuesday. “I came here as a witness… to see how the authorities will handle the investigation,” she said. “If they dare to close the pagoda, I will gather more people to come and protest.”
Under the din of chanting monks and nuns, countryside peasants claiming to be victims of land evictions engaged in heated discussion as the pagoda filled to capacity with outspoken monks and activists rallying against land grabs and the government’s land policies.
“The people of Phnom Penh – they are in full support of me,” Chief Monk Ang told Khmer Times earlier. “I believe that my activities are for the whole of the nation, and that’s why the people support me.”
The beleaguered pagoda head said that while he has the support of the people in the country, he feels he has been made into a pariah by Cambodian religious authorities.
The Samaki Raingsey pagoda has been embroiled in political protests, internal turmoil and, most recently, murder.
Last month, Phnom Penh City Hall announced that a committee would investigate “anti-government acts” involving the majority Khmer Krom monks at the pagoda, and whether the pagoda has proper accreditation with the Ministry of Cult and Religion. The investigation has been seen as a precursor to dismantling the pagoda and quelling dissent.
In an open letter, pagoda officials rebutted allegations made by City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche that the temple was involved in internal physical violence between monks, non-cooperation with city authorities and the burning of government vehicles during political protests.
“We are going to investigate the number of people staying in the pagoda,” Phan Davy, director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Department of Cults and Religion, told Khmer Times last week. “As far as I know, the [Samaki Raingsey] pagoda doesn’t have an accreditation. The land this pagoda occupies belongs to someone who lives abroad.”
“The government has the right to check everything and see if complaints of unlawful activity in the pagoda are true and if the pagoda itself has proper accreditation.” Mr. Dimanche said last week.
Upbeat and Confident
Chief Monk Ang struck an optimistic tone before investigators arrived yesterday. He spoke in a reflective tone in his quiet private chambers in the main worship hall of the pagoda where he would meet City Hall authorities later in the day.
“We have the support of the people, but I never got the support from the government,” he said. “I have the support of 80 percent of the active monks in Cambodia who love the country. The other 20 percent are those that follow the politically correct trends and status quo of the ruling party.”
“I expect that the investigation will result in a positive solution for all the parties involved,” he continued. “All we have done is to help the government by providing shelter to all those people around the country that have been victims of land evictions.”
“Even if they shut down the pagoda, we will protest until we find an acceptable resolution,” he added.
Crowds pour into the Samaki Raingsey pagoda ahead of a visit by City Hall inspectors. (KT Photo: Donald Lee)
A policeman inspects identification cards of people residing inside Samaki Raingsey pagoda. (KT Photo: Donald Lee)