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What should be the proper ways for Cambodian monks to participate in politics?

Written by: Han Noy, a 2rd-year student majoring in International Relations at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia.

Edited by: Heng Kimkonga Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a Ph.D. Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia.

Monks at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province, Cambodia. (Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press)


Buddhism came to Cambodia in the early 5th century when Hindu trading merchants brought it from India to the Mon kingdoms (present-day Myanmar and Thailand). Since then, Buddhism has played a significant role in Cambodian society. As the nation embraces it as the state religion, Cambodian Budhhist monks have been very active in taking part in their country’s social, economical, and political affairs. During the period of the French colonization (1863-1953), Khmer people were living under control, oppression, and sorrow. The liberty and rights were snatched away, and heavy taxes were required, making it virtually unendurable for Cambodian people. Within this context, Buddhist monks played a critical role in Cambodian society. They contributed to the cultivation and promotion of Khmer values and Khmer nationalism. They tried to preserve Khmer culture and bring the country out of danger of cultural extinction. 

In 1942, after the arrest of Achar Hem Chieu, one of the prominent monks who was leading people against the French colonization, there were between 1000 to 3000 monks, lay people, and the laity who participated in a demonstration, led by monks from all pagodas in Phnom Penh. At the time, about 500 monks carried umbrellas, an event known as an “ Umbrella War”.    

Our history suggests that Cambodian politics and Buddhist monks have been intertwined with each other for centuries. There are, however, still some critiques and praises from people regarding the involvement of monks in political activities, particularly as regards demonstrations and other forms of public gatherings. Today monks’ political activism has been labeled as improper, resulting in monks being arrested, defrocked and/or accused of violating monks’ code of conduct by the Cambodian authorities. Essentially, these have demotivated many monks from participating in their country’s public affairs, and the role of monks in Cambodian society seems to have faltered. So is it wrong that monks participate in politics or exercise their political activism? What should be the proper ways for monks to participate in politics?

Is it wrong for monks to participate in politics?  

Before knowing whether it is right or wrong when a monk participates in politics, we need to define the term “politics'' first. In a general view, politics is the art of competing for power to lead a state based on our own political vision. It is the goal and ambition of politicians to compete in politics and to govern a country. As Hans Morgenthau, an influential realist, once said, politics is “the struggle for power.” In this regard, it is not a duty of Buddhist monks to engage in politics to gain power to control the state just like what politicians do. In the Cambodian context, when people think of monks in politics, they generally picture monks joining public gatherings or assemblies only; they do not see anything beyond this. Nobody ever stops and thinks whether it is against monks’ discipline or not that Buddhist monks join demonstrations. The answer to this can be yes or no. It is a yes, if monks adhere to good and quiet manners by respecting the value as a monk, while it is a no when monks scream, yell, raise hands, and use any other inappropriate gestures which are considered illicit in monks’ code of conduct. Thus, even though it may not be right for monks to participate in politics, they still can do so as long as they can comply with the monks’ codes of conduct. In fact, monks can take part in politics to show their care about their country's public affairs in a similar way as lay people and other citizens do. In a democractic society, everyone has equal rights to participate in politics. Monks can therefore do so as long as they do not violate monks’ codes of conduct. 

In fact, the goal of Buddhist monks is enormous; being monkhood is not for gambling, entertaining, avoiding housework, saving wealth, and seeking for ranks, but it is about digging out the truth of life to alleviate all suffering and to ultimately save and free the world from misery. In addition, they have the very significant responsibilities to help their people from any sorrow through preaching Dhamma, and participating in politics when people and country face danger, injustice, and/or instability. If we look at the Dhamma, there is no statement from Buddha which prevents monks from associating with political, social,and economical affairs but only advises them to assist and extricate people out of crisis and hardship.

In addition, as stated in Article 31 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, “ Every Khmer citizen shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights, freedom and fulfilling the same obligations regardless of race, color, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth or other status.” Likewise, Article 35 states that “Khmer citizens of either sex shall have the right to participate actively in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation.”

Based on the Cambodian Constitution, Cambodian citizens have the right to participate in politics for the sake of national development. Thus, in accordance with our country’s Constitution and the Buddhist principles of the middle path, it seems that monks are not prohibited from participating in politics to contribute to the development of their nation. 

Furthermore, Article 15 of the 1997 Cambodian law on political parties states that “Religious priests, members of judiciary, members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (R.C.A.F) and National Police Forces may join as members of political parties, but they must not conduct any activity for supporting or opposing any political party. A political party must not organize its organizational structure inside the religious bodies, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and in the National Police Forces.” This means that the law does not exclude anyone, particularly Buddhist monks from society; everyone has an equal opportunity to be members of any political parties, although the law does not allow religious priests to conduct or organize any activities to oppose any sides or parties. In this sense, monks are authorized to be in any political group, but they cannot explicitly proclaim which parties they are in and criticize another side.

Buddha once said, “living in a suitable place is the blessing.” Monks will be living in happiness, tranquility, and peace when their country is prosperous, peaceful, stable, and just, but all of these will be taken away, including a chance to chant Dhamma and do meditation, when there is no peace, prosperity, stability, and justice in their country. As we can see, during the Khmer Rouge regime, when the country was in darkness and crisis and people experienced starvation, torture and death, monks suffered and were targeted for execution as well.

Achar Hem Chieu used to say that “The monks’ rice pot remains with the people, if the people are miserable, have nothing to eat, so do the monks.” This indicates that when people live under slavery, oppresion, and starvation, monks will also suffer. Hence, they need to find a way to help, guide, and encourage their people​​ to fight for freedom, independence, and total peace. They cannot just eat, stay, and chant Dhamma in pagodas seeing their country going to collapse and people living in misery. They need to do whatever they can to bring their country and people out of despondency and suffering.

The proper ways for monks to participate in politics.

Buddhist monks have played important roles contributing to national evolution. There are still, however, some bad views regarding monks' engagement in politics. Thus, I wish to offer three possible means for them to take part in politics. First, preaching Dhamma. It is an effective way to spread knowledge, philosophy and Buddhist concepts that are helpful for our people since monks are oftentimes invited to give sermons when Cambodian Buddhists conduct any ceremonies inside and outside of pagodas. Hence, it is a great chance for them to talk about the real Dhamma left by Buddha comprising a lot of good advice which can be applied to build a prosperous country and promote good governance in our country as well.​ Additionally, they can extend their talk beyond Buddha's theory and speak about Khmer identity, culture, democratic principles, and Cambodian laws because these are very important knowledge that must be cultivated and shared to Cambodian people, especially youth. Buddha spent 45 years after enlightenment to focus on teaching, explaining, and addressing Dhamma to people. His teaching is extremely impactful, not just for ordinary people but also for kings or country leaders.

Second, writing and publishing articles and/or books. Writing is an art to disseminate our vision, perspective, and Buddha’s philosophy to the public. It is helpful and influential, especially when our ideas are written down, it is very critical and lasts a long time; it can be passed from one generation to another. For instance, we can take a pattern from monks during the French colonization, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, and the Khmer Republic; they have done a very good job related to this, and their concepts and opinions continue to exist and have influence on our recent time and in the future. Unfortunately, as not many Cambodian Buddhist monks spend time to write academic papers or books, their perspective, and Buddha's concept have not been promulgated widely to people even though Cambodia people are 95% Buddhist.This is the real problem that must be fixed and keep improving in the field of academic writing. Likewise, according to Yos Hut Khemacaro, head of the Khmer Buddhist Foundation in France, in order for monk’s contribution to be constructive “they require greater education on the teachings of Buddhism as well as a more sophisticated awareness of the world outside the monastery. Only then can they effectively instruct and provide guidance to the people'' and contribute to social progress .This can be a good way for them to indirectly play a role in politics without violating monks’ code of conduct. 

Third, participating in politics by adhering to non-violence and the middle path. As Cambodian monks participate in political activities to challenge injustice, human rights violations, and rampant corruption are mostly seen as partisans by the authorities, it is crucial that monks be strategic and follow the middle path. Perhaps non-partisan activism is the way forward. Monks need to ensure that their activism does not appear to be linked to any party or political ideology. Importantly, monks need to help promote peace and the principles of the middle path. For example, there was a Dhammaryietra peace march in 1992  guided by Venerable Maha Ghosananda to bring the message of hope and motivation to all Cambodian people after decades of civil war. This massive peace demonstration was well received by the public and even the government officials. This event proves to us that through the power of universal values of compassion, non-violence, and solidarity, monks can play a crucial role in promoting peace and harmony in society.  


Cambodian monks do distribute significantly to Cambodia's social, political, cultural, and economic development. Therefore, monks’ roles in society and in politics should be supported, not undermined. Moreover, the government and concerned stakeholders need to empower, support, and cooperate with monks; All stakeholders must ensure that there is no excuse to prevent monks from participating in politics since sometimes it is not about monks violating their code of conduct but rather about fear of monks mobilizing political dissent. Allowing Buddhist monks to enjoy civil rights and decide on matters of general concern would be greatly essential for the country's development. Limiting their rights and roles to only religious affairs and preventing them from public affairs are not a smart choice since monks’ roles go beyond what happens in pagodas. They can also contribute to ensuring that the government implements its policies effectively. However, Buddhist monks themselves must be aware of who they really are. Their participation and contribution need to be balanced between religious virtue and the country's laws. Monks can be part of the solution, not the problem! When everyone can play their part in contributing to national development, our country would be more prosperous, democratic, and civilized.