In recent decades, Cambodia’s Buddhist monks have been largely absent from the political sphere. Their role had been mostly relegated to that of simple preachers who were most commonly seen collecting alms or studying in their pagodas.
But now, harnessing the power of social media, groups of monks are starting to rise up against what monk But Buntenh describes as “the huge social injustices that the government is [inflicting] on Cambodian people.” In Cambodia, monks have a powerful influence on the country’s predominantly Buddhist population. In contrast to their previous passivity, young progressive monks are now be seen at major political rallies – usually in opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Many monks are also strongly expressing their views with regards to environmental protection, and the regime’s indifference to the nation’s natural preservation.
Cambodia is essentially a country for sale, and foreign development corporations are taking advantage of the opportunity. Large areas of farmland are being converted into rubber and sugar plantations, and the Mekong River is being harnessed for electricity as far north as Laos and China.
This story follows a group of over 40 monks as they march 25km towards the remote village of Pra Lay to voice their anger over environmental destruction in their country.
The march is not an easy one. Starting hours behind schedule due to a mechanical problem with their chartered bus, the monks do not start walking until nearly 5p.m. When darkness falls a few hours later, the monks have not even reached the halfway point. But despite wearing only rubber or leather sandals, and the fact that they have not eaten since noon, the monks all manage to reach Pra Lay. While the fastest walkers arrive at around 1:30 am, some of the elderly monks are stranded in the jungle until past 4am.
Despite their late arrival, the monks rise with the sun and carry on with their protest for most of the following day before starting the long walk back out of the valley.
Politically active monks are an emerging trend in Cambodia, and this story will not be the last to feature them.