In hushed but desperate voices, two monks spent the early morning hours Monday trying to convince opposition leader Sam Rainsy to leave Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounalom, where he was staging a hunger strike to protest what he claims is unnecessarily lavish spending by the government on the Asean Summit.
“These monks have been clearly terrorized,” Sam Rainsy said shortly after making the decision to leave the pagoda around 1:30 am. His dozen or so followers quickly packed a few bags, took up some pillows and the politician was hustled into a car, followed by a truck full of bodyguards.
What came in the hours before was an unusual standoff between Sam Rainsy and Tep Vong, patriarch of the Mohanikay, the larger of Cambodia’s two Buddhist sects, who two times sent junior monks to ask Sam Rainsy to leave the pagoda.
Earlier in the night a visibly tired Sam Rainsy—the opposition leader has refused to eat since Saturday—said it would only be a personal visit by Tep Vong that would convince him to leave Wat Ounalom.
“If Tep Vong comes down here and asks me to leave, how can I refuse?” Sam Rainsy asked. “But he has to come down here personally.”
Sam Rainsy sneaked into the pagoda several hours before, after city police barred several entrances. The politician has been the fiercest critic of the Asean Summit, which is being held at a time when hundreds of thousands of Cambodian farmers are facing food shortages.
Wat Ounalom, he said, would become the stage for his protest—a hunger strike to show solidarity with Cambodia’s hungry.
“I do not eat because it is my choice. There are many people who do not have a choice,” he said after several tense encounters with police, who he claimed attempted to evict him around 6:30 pm.
Police later said they were only at the pagoda because a large number of opposition bodyguards and supporters were seen entering.
“We did not surround the pagoda,” said Daun Penh district Police Chief Ouch Thorn.
After at least two deadlines passed—one at 9 pm and the last at 11 pm—it became clear that Sam Rainsy would not leave the pagoda, and an impromptu war council of top monks and city officials was called in a building across the sprawling pagoda.
As late as midnight, large groups of monks were arriving from nearby pagodas and joining the meeting, which was closely guarded by a half dozen bodyguards and men in military uniforms.
The mood on Sam Rainsy’s side of the pagoda was darkening—his bodyguards were becoming increasingly agitated amid rumors that a gang of younger monks was going to physically force the politician from the pagoda.
But in the end it was heavy-handed diplomacy, rather than force, that pushed Sam Rainsy and his entourage from Wat Ounalom.
Shortly after midnight two final monks met Sam Rainsy in the narrow roadway outside his building. One was a supporter of his, and had let the opposition leader into the pagoda earlier that evening.
Both begged him to leave, breaking down in tears at his refusals—“Please have pity on the monks,” one said. Sam Rainsy paused, and then gave a curt “OK.”
“He was terrorized. These monks dare not explain why I must leave,” Sam Rainsy said. His followers were already clearing out the large room where he was fasting, while others were outside starting the politician’s three vehicles.
“I have made my last prayer here,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)
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