Buddhist monk Sao Chanthol will cast his ballot for Cambodia’s ruling party on Sunday, but the vote has exposed a deep fracture in the 60,000-strong clergy with some planning to stay home to protest a ban on the opposition in what is now effectively a one-party state.
From daily alms collections by monks to the countless temples that dot the country, Buddhism is entwined with Cambodian life.
Monks were given the right to vote in UN-sponsored elections in 1993 as Cambodia emerged from the ravages of civil war and rule by the Khmer Rouge, which killed a quarter of the population, targeted religious groups and turned pagodas into prisons during its 1975-1979 reign.
Chanthol, the head abbot at Wat Langka in Phnom Penh and one of the most senior monks in Cambodia, said premier Hun Sen helped bring peace and restored the nation’s Buddhist institutions, reflecting a widely-held view of the strongman leader as a stabilising force.
A clock bearing the visage of Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany hangs inside the main hall, a tell to the allegiances of the monks there.
“My whole life I have voted for the Cambodian People’s Party,” he added.
Hun Sen has combined political savvy and force to hold onto power for more than three decades.
One pillar of his control resides in alliances with the clergy, where loyalists try to galvanise support for the CPP among the country’s 60,000 monks.
Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, head of the country’s largest Buddhist sect and a backer of Hun Sen, has asked monks in the past not to get involved in “people power” movements.
But in the months before the election, the patriarch urged faithful to head to the ballot boxes.
“Hun Sen and the CPP have harnessed every agent of the Cambodian state… to pressure the people to vote,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“The Buddhist committees overseeing monks are no exception.”
‘Useless to vote’
But despite the top-down control, outspoken monks have for years risked being defrocked by protesting corruption, environmental degradation and land grabbing.
Many supported the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) before it was banned last year as Hun Sen cleared the decks for the election.
Frustrated at the lack of an alternative, some monks are planning on staying home.
“Now it’s just a one-horse race so it’s useless to vote in this election,” one monk told AFP, declining to give his name for fear of retribution.
A total of 20 political parties are running but many are obscure and have been criticised for legitimising what rights groups have described as a “sham”.
Opposition members abroad have called for a boycott but authorities have said doing so is a crime, prompting fears of speaking out.
Another monk, also requesting anonymity, said senior clergy members were applying pressure.
“If we don’t go to vote we will be considered opposition supporters,” he said, estimating that 90 percent of monks want “new leaders”.
“But I won’t go to vote anyway.”
Chanthol denied leaning on the hundreds of monks at Wat Langka, but said he had offered his temporal guidance.
“I told them that the Cambodian People’s Party is a good party,” he said. “My word to them, to every monk, is please go to vote.”