Cambodian monks get the vote

DPA, Nov 29, 2006

Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- Cambodian Buddhist monks have the right to vote in upcoming commune and national elections, acting head of state Chea Sim told a Buddhist congress in the capital Wednesday.

His statement threatens to reignite a public debate which flared before the 2003 general elections when Supreme Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhists and leader of the Mahanikaya Buddhist sect in Cambodia, Tep Vong, declared monks should abstain from voting.

Chea Sim, who is also president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and leader of the nation's Senate, told the 15th Annual Congress of Cambodian Buddhist Monks that monks have a perfect right to vote in a speech that also extolled them to use their social position to teach morality and promote social development.

"Cambodian Buddhist monks have the full right to vote," Chea Sim told around 500 senior Buddhist monks, officials, politicians and members of the country's Islamic community.

Although Cambodian monks have the constitutional right to vote, debate has raged about their role in politics and whether they should be above political opinions.

Some Cambodians remember as positive the role they played in the resistance against French colonial rule and other regimes, while others worry in the wake of protests involving Buddhist monks which turned violent after the 1993 and 1998 national elections.

Still others maintain that monks visiting crowded polling booths are at risk of temptation and in danger of such taboos such as accidentally touching women.

Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong is known to be a supporter of the CPP. Recently he has refrained from commenting on the issue of monks voting as commune elections loom for April 2007. National elections are scheduled for 2008.

Cambodia, which is 95 per cent Buddhist, currently has more than 57,500 Buddhist monks and 4,135 pagodas across the country.