“Monks must not fuck,” he said, his round bespectacled face full of humour. We were getting a crash course on the fundaments of life as a Buddhist monk, the popping of Redbull cans echoed in the open space of the pagoda’s dining hall. The large room, divided into inadvertent sections by ornately decorated pillars, was full of people in various states of fatigue – the citizen activists finishing styrofoam containers of rice and dried fish, the monks downing 250ml energy drinks. The group, roughly 50 strong, had been walking for three days down Cambodia’s national highway 6 and they needed to replenish their strength. They are taking part in one of the largest Human Rights Day protests in Cambodia’s history, and on all of Cambodia’s major highways there were separate groups doing the same thing. Since Dharmic asceticism requires monks to abstain from many things, including having sex, harming living creatures, and eating solid foods after noon, they would have to make due with a liquid dinner. Buddha has no qualms with Redbull it would seem.
The trip from Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom, though not much further than 120km, had taken us nearly 5 hours in a minivan, packed four people to a row and fighting constantly with fellow passengers for elbowroom. Despite having nearly 8 years of Cambodian experience between us, photographer Nicolas Axelrod and I had badly misjudged the travel time and arrived at the pagoda well after dark. Rather than marching with the monks as planned, all we could do was sling our hammocks around the building’s load bearing columns and settle in for the night. Peering through the hammock’s mesh walls I could see the monks doing the same thing, though how they planned to sleep after consuming half a liter of taurine was beyond me.
The following morning the pagoda burst abruptly to life with the rolling baseline of a Khmer pop song and the small speakers of the monks’ smartphones gave the music a tinny sound that got me to my feet before I was yet fully awake. The monks were slower to rise; motionless under the saffron blankets they had drawn their robes over their heads to ward off the morning light. When the pagoda came to life it was with sudden urgency, as if everyone had been lying awake hoping for an extra ten minutes of sleep but had been forced into action by the movement of their peers. From stillness to frenzied action, the room transformed in a matter of minutes; mosquito nets were rolled up and stowed in travel bags, lines formed for the two squat-toilets, and monks scrambled to locate their cell phones from admin the tangled mass of electronics crowded around two overtaxed power bars. A general migration of people to the central courtyard could only mean one thing: it was time to leave.
As the protestors filed out of the pagoda and walked across the sandy courtyard, they paused beside the demonstration’s support truck to pick up flags and banners bearing human rights slogans. Though the scene was decidedly militaristic, like Russian soldiers in World War II movies receiving their rifles before being ordered to charge, any sense of hostility was belied by the monk’s tired-yet-cheerful expressions. Once suitably armed, the group formed up in a loose line under an ornately carved wooden gate to wait for any stragglers and began to shoot pictures with smartphones for social media uploading. Facebook and Twitter have been key driving forces behind the recent surge in anti-government opposition, and the marchers had been filming the event with HD camcorders to present to their online followers.
Outside the pagoda villagers stepped out of their homes to line both sides of the highway. While some watched on impassively, either unconcerned or confused about what they were seeing. Many more stood patiently beside buckets of scented water, waiting to be blessed or to offer support in the form of food or cash. To avoid halting the column every few meters, teams of monks on motorcycles ranged up and down the road performing the water blessings and collecting the small bags of rice. The alms were substantial; a flatbed truck followed the procession in order to transport dozens of cases of donated water, and it took six people over an hour to count and sort the money each night. Considering that the average Cambodian makes roughly $80 per month, these acts of charity speak volumes about the national desire for change.
Within minutes the heat became uncomfortable and after a few hours the monks were dripping with sweat. Draping orange towels over their heads to shield themselves from the sun above, their plastic sandals stuck to the melting asphalt below. Ironically, among the most common sources of shade were the ubiquitous road signs featuring portraits of key figures from the hegemonic Cambodian People’s Party. Throughout the day the protestors huddled in their shadows while Hun Sen watched on imperially.
Every few kilometers a government vehicle waits for the marchers; they are easily identified by their conspicuous lack of rust, and more obviously by the men in short-sleeved khaki shirts standing nearby, taking photos with tablet computers to be filed in some mysterious database of known troublemakers. Younger monks point them out excitedly, as if they are glimpsing exotic birds in the wild and need confirmation that their eyes are not deceiving them.As easy as they are to dismiss – they make no attempt to hinder or interfere with the demonstration – the vehicles are a reminder that the CPP is tracking us as we approach Phnom Penh. Text messages from journalists following different groups on other national highways report similar experiences across the country. In some cases the marchers arrive in villages to find the local pagodas locked by order of high-ranking Buddhist officials, who have labeled the protesting monks as dissidents.
As the various groups of demonstrators converge on the capital the question of how the government will react is at the forefront of people’s minds, and on the eve of International Human Rights Day it difficult to know how events will unfold. Will the police force stand impassively in front of a chanting mob, or will they react violently as they did during the garment factory worker strike that saw an innocent bystander gunned down by a pistol round? Will this be remembered as a catalytic moment in the modern history of Cambodia, or will the CPP simply send a few street sweepers to tidy up the mess once the protestors have gone home? Things are rarely predictable in the Kingdom of Wonder; powder keg moments, when it seems the whole country is on the verge of tearing itself to pieces, sometimes dissipate quietly just as things seem the most tense. Conversely, seemingly benign events have grown into major incidents of great consequence.
Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, the 2013 Human Rights Day is hugely symbolic of the small Southeast Asian nation’s growing resentment of the current political situation. The unprecedented scale and complex organization of the protests should serve as a warning to the government. They are facing an increasingly more informed and connected society than the one they have been handily oppressing for the last three decades. And the prospect must terrify them.