PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – If the Ministry of Interior refuses to issue new identification cards to the country’s estimated 50,000 monks so that they can vote in the next election, monks will find other ways to make their voices heard in the electoral process, two national leaders of monks told Khmer Times yesterday.
“The ruling party will lose more support if monks are not allowed to vote,” Venerable But Buntenh, leader of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, said. He suggested it would be bad karma to deprive monks of their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.
“We have a lot of support through our religious activities and we can disseminate information to people and tell them that we have been deprived of the right to vote,” he said.
He made the comments after a report from the National Election Committee (NEC) yesterday noted that monks were having trouble obtaining ID cards. The new ID cards will be required to vote in the 2017 commune elections and the national election in 2018.
ID Cards and the Interior Ministry
NEC member Duch Sorn said he had raised the issue with the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Identification.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said the NEC has been calling on the ministry to find a way to issue the ID cards to monks, after officials at the ministry said they might not be able to do so in time for the next election.
“The NEC’s position is that we want monks to vote because they are Cambodian citizens, and according to the Cambodian Constitution they have the right to vote,” Mr. Puthea said. “The Ministry of Interior did not explain why they cannot issue the cards. They just said they couldn’t make them for monks.”
Mr. Puthea said it might be the monks’ appearance that is preventing them from getting ID cards. “It is hard to identify people without eyebrows,” he said, referring to the fact that Cambodian monks shave their eyebrows as well as their heads.
“If the ministry can’t make ID cards or substitute documents for them, then they may not be able to vote in the next election,” Mr. Puthea said.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, cited a number of reasons for the ministry’s inability to make ID cards for monks. Monks do not pay taxes and do not own houses so they lack permanent addresses, he said.
“We need a fixed address on the ID card,” Mr. Sopheak said.
The spokesman suggested political factors may be involved as well. “I know the Supreme Patriarch already banned them [from voting]. And monks should stay independent,” he said.
Opposition Aware of Issue
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said his party would meet with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to discuss guaranteeing the voting rights of monks. “The opposition working group will meet with the CPP working group to talk about the rights of monks. The position of the Interior Ministry indicates that monks are not Cambodian without identity documents,” Mr. Sovann said.
Venerable Ngim Soasamkhan, director of Social Dhamma Dana Organization, an advocacy groups comprised of monks, said monks must be issued identity cards. If they are not allowed to vote they will lose their freedom of expression, he said.
“Monks are neutral, but because they are educated, they will vote in favor of democracy and good leaders,” Venerable Soasamkhan said. “According to the Constitution, we have the right to protest to demand that we should have the right to vote.”
Venerable Buntenh said the Interior Ministry was being callous by attempting to curtail the rights of monks to freely express their views.
He said the issue was settled more than a decade ago. Monks were not allowed to vote in the 1998 election, but after the CPP rose to power its members went on a pagoda-building spree, Venerable Bunteth said. This was intended to woo the support of monks and devout Buddhists so that they would vote for the party in the 2003 election, he said, adding that the CPP won this election.
Then, monks were split on whether or not they should vote, he added. One leading opponent of voting rights for monks – Venerable Sam Bunthoeun – was killed in February 2003 by unknown assailants, Venerable Buntenh noted. This ended the controversy, he said.
Monks are becoming more involved in social justice and environmental issues, Venerable Buntenh explained. Some even protest against the government.
Venerable Buntenh said monks were responsible for the loss of seats suffered by the CPP in the last election. He accused the CPP of attempting to punish monks for this by depriving them of the right to vote in the next election. However, if it succeeds in doing so the tactic will backfire, Venerable Buntenh warned.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the Ministry of Interior was discriminating against monks. They are Cambodians citizens and deserve the right to vote, he said.
“I don’t believe the Ministry of Interior can’t make ID card for monks. Maybe the reason is they cannot do it on time. But the ministry has to make ID cards for monks. If they don’t, it is discriminating against them and violating the Constitution,” he said. Additional reporter by Pav Suy