Deputy Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng on Tuesday reversed course on a City Hall announcement that it was investigating Wat Samakki Raingsey over alleged anti-government behavior and secessionist designs, comments that sparked fears among its monks that the independent-minded pagoda would be shut down.
During a visit to the pagoda with more than 50 police and military police in tow Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Sreng told its head monks that Samakki Raingsey would need to secure approval from the Ministry of Cults and Religions before it was fully accredited. But he left without making an explicit threat to shut it down or curb the unorthodox activities of its residents.
Deputy Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng, center, visits Wat Samakki Raingsey on Tuesday as part of an official investigation into what City Hall has called ‘anti-government acts’ by the pagoda. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
“I want the pagoda to follow the rules and laws,” he told acting chief monk Thach Ha Sam Ang. “You should not try to hide things from me. I know everything you do. When you act like this, I am not happy about it.”
Samakki Raingsey is one of the few pagodas in the country that regularly defies the country’s Buddhist hierarchy by speaking out on politically sensitive issues. Over the past year, it has raised the ire of local authorities by offering shelter to out-of-town villagers protesting in Phnom Penh against the private companies they accuse of stealing their land.
Last month, City Hall said it was investigating the pagoda over the fatal stabbing of one of its senior monks and other unspecified “anti-government acts.” In a subsequent interview, municipal spokesman Long Dimanche went so far as to claim that the pagoda’s alleged lack of cooperation with authorities was “like a secession.”
During Tuesday’s saber-rattling visit, however, the deputy governor said the city was only interested in the murder—a suspect has already been arrested and charged—and whether the pagoda was fully accredited, nothing else.
“After the notice [of an investigation], there was a war in the news between the monks, supporters and City Hall, but this is all confusion,” Mr. Sreng said. “This issue has been exaggerated because of politicians and extremists…. It is not like people say, that City Hall is coming to destroy Samakki Raingsey pagoda. It is not true.”
He said the municipal spokesman’s talk of secession was also blown out of proportion.
“You might be confused,” he said. “[Mr. Dimanche] said ‘like a secession,’ not that it was a secession. Khmer words are rich because they have 33 consonants and many vowels, so listen…. He said ‘almost like.’ This is not an issue.”
Reporters attempted to ask Mr. Dimanche, who accompanied Mr. Sreng to the pagoda, to clarify his words for himself. But the deputy governor stepped in to stop the spokesman from speaking.
“I do not allow him to speak,” Mr. Sreng said.
A municipal official records the personal information of a monk at Samakki Raingsey pagoda on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
As for accreditation, Mr. Sreng said the pagoda would first need to get an official seal from the Ministry of Interior before going to the Ministry of Cults and Religion. But to get the seal, he said, the pagoda needs to prove it owns the land on which it stands.
Thach Ha Sam Ang, the acting chief monk, said the original title was lost in a fire and asked the deputy governor for help to replace it. Mr. Sreng said he would try, but added that it would be difficult.
After about two hours, Mr. Sreng left Samakki Raingsey to songs and cheers from monks and supporters who were relieved that the pagoda had not been shut down.
But not all of them were convinced by his claims that the city was only interested in the pagoda’s paperwork and the recent murder. Some pointed out that the murder of monks at other pagodas had not attracted the same scrutiny.
During the deputy governor’s visit, his staff recorded the name and age of every monk living at Samakki Raingsey. They instructed the pagoda to notify commune officials any time a new monk came to stay there.
Thach Thavry, the pagoda’s head of administration, said the heavy police presence was clearly meant to scare the monks out of continuing their activism.
“We can see that they want to show their muscle and threaten us,” he said. “What [Mr. Sreng] says is different from what he does…. But we will continue to protest for social justice and support the villagers because it is our right.”
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