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Activist Monks Flee Cambodia Fearing Arrest, Defrocking

FILE - Activist monk Bor Bet holds a sign reading 'Free Mr. Rong Chhun' in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August 2020. (Photo courtesy Bor Bet)

Last summer, prominent Cambodian activist monk Bor Bet participated in protests triggered by the arrest of labor leader Rong Chhun. Now the monk has fled to Thailand with other Cambodian dissidents, vowing to return home.

Like many Cambodian Buddhist monks, Bor Bet has embraced activism, working with a loose coalition of movements bedeviling the increasingly authoritarian government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Advocates for democracy, labor unions, human rights and the environment, they participate in each other’s demonstrations.

When authorities arrested Rong Chhun, a veteran human rights defender, July 31 and charged him with “incitement to cause social unrest,” he was pursuing the case of farmers in Tbong Khmum, a province on the Vietnam border, whose land had been seized as part of the official demarcation of the border, long a contentious issue.

The informal alliance of activists, Bor Bet among them, quickly took to the streets of Phnom Penh. The protests supporting Rong Chhun were deemed illegal by the government which arrested and charged at least 12 people with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest,” and “obstructing the authorities.”

Local rights groups contended the charges were part of the government’s effort to silence dissent.

Within days, Bor Bet received a letter asking him and other monks at the Broyuvong Pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district to attend an Aug. 5 meeting with the local monk council, a group the government uses to monitor the monks.

The invitation made Bor Bet suspicious. He knew the monk council in the city of Siem Reap had summoned land rights activist monk Luon Sovath in June, accusing him of having had intimate relations with four women — a mother and three daughters. According to local police, one of the sisters had filed a rape complaint. Another sister, Tim Ratha, told VOA Khmer in June: “They wanted to smear the monk.”

Luon Sovath, internationally recognized for his work, fled to Thailand, where he wears his robes despite the Cambodian government’s claim that he has been defrocked. He is now seeking asylum in Switzerland, claiming that the rape allegations were little more than a government attempt to silence him for his activism with a prison sentence.

FILE - Activist monk Sim Sovandy holds a sign reading 'Free Mr. Rong Chhun' in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August 2020. (Photo courtesy Sim Sovandy)
FILE - Activist monk Sim Sovandy holds a sign reading 'Free Mr. Rong Chhun' in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August 2020. (Photo courtesy Sim Sovandy)

Bor Bet also knew that But Buntenh, who founded the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, had fled Cambodia after being harassed by police for his outspoken stance on land dispossession and environmental degradation. But Buntenh now lives in the U.S.

With the group invitation, Bor Bet said he sensed a ruse because he knew the Phnom Penh monk council was targeting him for his activism. They “wanted to arrest and defrock me and they knew … I would flee if they only called me,” he told the VOA Khmer Service.

Khim Sorn, Phnom Penh’s chief monk, told VOA the invitation to the monks at Broyuvong Pagoda was for a routine meeting and there was no intention of defrocking Bor Bet. Khim Sorn said monks are not allowed to participate in protests and if they wanted to do so, they should leave the monkhood and continue their demonstrations as ordinary citizens.

Bor Bet, along with fellow monk Sim Sovandy, retreated to a pagoda in the remote Sorng Rukhavorn Wildlife Sanctuary in the northern province of Oddar Meanchey on the Thai border. A monk since the age of 13, Bor Bet said he left the capital city because he didn’t “want to be arrested and, especially, I don’t want to be defrocked.”

Sim Sovandy told VOA that Cambodian authorities had “attempted to imprison me.”

“I always join protests when there is any injustice and people are mistreated,” he said. “They were ready to arrest me, so I had to flee now.”

Flight to Thailand

The forested area reminded Bor Bet of his childhood surroundings, but he fled as soon as the chief monk learned from his local contacts that authorities were planning to arrest the dissident monks.

On Nov. 17, Bor Bet and Sim Sovandy fled to Thailand. They stayed for a week at a temple in Bangkok that had taken in another Cambodian monk. They then moved on to a second Thai temple that offers refuge to Cambodian monks. Bor Bet is now at a temple in Samut Prakan province, south of Bangkok. Sim Sovandy, who became a monk in 1989 and is now 46, took refuge at a pagoda temple in Pathum Thani province in central Thailand.

Khieu Sopheak, a spokesperson for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, said he could not confirm if Bor Bet or Sim Sovandy were wanted by law enforcement officials. He said they would face legal trouble only if they participated in “illegal protests.”

“You can ask the Venerable whether he participated in any illegal demonstration,” said Khieu Sopheak using the honorific title for a monk.

“The authorities only arrest people who commit something wrong,” he said.

Bor Bet, one of five siblings, grew up in the then-lush forests of the Kampong Thom’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. The deforestation of Prey Lang contributed to his activism.

“I was born and grew up in the forests. Our forests are lost and I feel regret,” he said.

Bor Bet, who decided on his own to become a monk, is a 2016 graduate of Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University in Phnom Penh, where he double-majored in Buddhist philosophy and law in 2016. He also earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2019 at Preah Sihamoniraja Buddhist University in Phnom Penh.

He said he realized his secular and ecclesiastical studies meant little if he didn’t use what he had learned to help people.

“If I just eat and stay in a pagoda without caring about the suppression of people and deforestation, I can’t do it,” said Bor Bet. “I feel the pain.”

Today in Thailand, Bor Bet is contemplating his future as his mother worries. A farmer in Kampong Thom province, Ouk Phuon, 57, hasn’t seen him in five months.

“He told me not to worry about him but I do although I am a bit relieved since he has fled. I was afraid that he will be mistreated,” she said.

Bor Bet wants to return to Cambodia. “I want to get involved in politics,” he said. “Maybe in the next 10 years, I will leave the monkhood and get involved in politics by joining any party which is democratic. I will return.”

This story originated in VOA's Khmer Service.