PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Loun Sovath lived the routine life of a Buddhist monk for many years in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh before he was drawn into the many battles over land that pitted poor villagers and city dwellers against the government and large corporations.
From protests in his home commune of Chi Kraeng in Siem Reap province to the battle over Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake and the Prey Lang forest, Sovath has been vocal in opposing government policy and the sometimes violent suppression of dissent.
He is among dozens of Buddhist monks in the Southeast Asian country who have thrown themselves into the fight over land and resources, risking imprisonment and banishment from their order.
“Evictions and forcible confiscations of land rank as one of Cambodia’s most pervasive human rights problems, and are growing worse,” said the saffron-robed Sovath, who was banned from all the temples and threatened with expulsion from his order.
“The violent response by authorities against protesters shall no longer be tolerated. The Buddha’s teachings encourage monks to engage in social activities and help communities,” said Sovath, whose popular blog is subtitled “Engaged Buddhism”.
Home to 15 million people, impoverished Cambodia has a history of disputes over land rights, many dating back to the 1970s when the communist Khmer Rouge regime destroyed property records, and all housing and land became state property.
Cambodia began to privatize land after 1989 as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government courted foreign investment.
The lack of a publicly available land register detailing boundaries means authorities could confiscate land, claiming that affected families were living on state property.
Thousands of families are driven each year from farmland and urban settlements to make way for mining and agricultural projects or real estate developments.
Between 2000 and 2014, land conflicts affected some 770,000 Cambodians, according to charges presented by lawyers at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Cambodia’s government says it is working with consultants and business to protect the rights of small farmers and the urban poor, even as it cracks down on protests and jails activists.
In a country where an estimated 95 percent of the population practise Theravada Buddhism, Cambodia’s Buddhist monks had been involved in political protests and post-war peace building efforts in the late 1990s.
The push for development has also dragged them into conflicts over land, resources and the environment, and they are using their religious authority, local clout and social media networks to bolster these movements.
“Increasing numbers of Buddhist monks engage in advocacy activities that are politically sensitive, including for the victims of the government’s land confiscation policy,” said academics Bunly Soeung and Sung Yong Lee in a recent paper.
Monks and organizations led by them are “mobilizing protests, championing such protests by standing at the frontlines, recording and disseminating details of suppression, providing material aid, and giving sermons,” they said.
Buddhist monks have always had leadership roles in the community, including in education and social ceremonies. People turn to them not just for religious guidance, but also for advice on everyday problems.
Monks are also seen as apolitical, and their status as religious leaders means their participation in rights movements “is likely to gain wider support than that of lay leaders”, said Soeung and Lee in their paper earlier this year.
The monks’ involvement gives the protests greater legitimacy and forces the government to pay attention, particularly as they are able to get their message out quicker and to more people through social media networks such as Facebook and YouTube.
Sovath, who has been arrested several times and was awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2012, has more than 80,000 followers on Facebook. He is known as the “multimedia monk” for his videos and social media posts.
His recent online petition asked the government to take “immediate and peaceful action to resolve all land conflicts”, halt all forced evictions, and stop harassing and intimidating rights defenders.
Prim Houn, another activist monk, said it is only natural that Buddhist monks are drawn to defend the rights of vulnerable people.
“It is our job to help people who are suffering: this is our dhamma (teaching) and it is why I must lend my support to people who are asking for justice,” said Houn, speaking at his temple in Phnom Penh, one of the biggest in the city and adorned with giant statues and gilded arches.
“Buddhism is a religion of peace and ahimsa, or non-violence, yet protesters are often beaten and arrested. This is wrong, and we must speak out against the injustice,” Houn, 31, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting outside his small room in the monks’ quarters.
Houn campaigns for land rights and the environment, and has held protests against deforestation. He said he has been pulled up by his superiors for his activism.
“The government has given away lands of Cambodians to foreign nations, forcing our people off their lands. This is wrong,” he said, speaking softly and choosing his words carefully.
“I will continue to protest; if I get arrested or thrown out of the temple, I am still happy to help the people who are suffering. Every citizen should have all the rights they are entitled to.”
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Ros Russell.