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Buddhists Ponder the Power of a March

A march of protest is the last resort of a powerless majority to fight and demand justice. A powerful march usually takes place when tolerance of the general public reaches its maximum.

The power of a Buddhist march relies mainly on its topic, which the general public must get behind, as well as trusted leaders, a leading monk says.

In Cambodia, that can mean a “Dhamma Yeatra,” said venerable monk Nhem Kim Teng, executive director of the Sante Sena, a Buddhist organization.

The Dhamma Yeatra peace march is held on various subjects that people are hungry for, said Nhem Kim Teng, who was a special assistant to the late Maha Ghosananda, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who marched to rebuild Cambodia after decades of civil war.

“It depends on the leaders of the Dhamma Yeatra and its goals,” Nhem Kim Teng said. “Gosananda’s background has nothing to do with political power. He was a genuinely peaceful monk, spiritually and bodily. This drew the attention of everyone. His words harmed nothing and no one. He talked only about the dharma of the Buddha. I think if we could have leaders of a Dhamma Yeatra like Maha Gosananda, people would join a march.”

Nhem Kim Teng, who is working toward a doctorate in Buddhism in India, recalled powerful peace marches like those led by Mahatma Gandhi, as Indians sought independence from British colonial rule, or by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the US civil rights struggles.

In November, Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando began his own march, from Phnom Penh to Odda Meanchey province, to promote peace and development along the tense Thai-Cambodian border.

Mam Sonando’s journey was hampered at the outset when monks refused to allow him overnight shelter in Kandal province, just outside the capital, because The Ministry of Cults and Religions didn’t give him permission to march.

Mam Sonando’s march was not comparable to those held by Maha Gosananda, Nhem Kim Teng said.

Maha Gosananda was able to overcome landmines and the Khmer Rouge at a time when there were less pagodas and monks, following the reign of a regime affiliated with socialism and communism.

Min Khim, Minister of Cults and Religions, said Mam Sonando’s march was not sanctified, as it could have caused traffic congestion.

“The freedom of religion is well respected, but one has to abide by the law for security reasons, for social order and avoiding the violation of others rights—blocking traffic,” he said.

He said such a march was a throwback to the past. Japanese activists of the Dahamma Yeatra, the remaining team of Maha Gosananda, had changed their strategy from marching to sending their message by Internet, e-mail, and through the radio, to avoid causing traffic congestion, he said.

He added that of if a Dhamma Yeatra was necessary, it should be held outside bustling cities.

Mam Sonando said he had been ordained to lead his Dhamma Yeatra because marching in robe would better bring more attention for Cambodian Buddhists to join the construction of pagodas, schools and other infrastructure. His Dhama Yeatra was meant to defend the border though development.

“If I had marched as a layman, it would not have been as important as if I had marched in a monk’s robe,” Mam Sonando said.

Nhem Kim Teng said the power of the Dhamma Teatra in Cambodia may have decreased, but Mam Sonando’s march didn’t mean the power of Buddhism was waning.

One of the most recent powerful Buddhism marches was in 1999, when nearly 10,000 Cambodian Buddhists and monks marched to transfer a Buddha relic from a stupa in front of Phnom Penh’s railway station, where prostitution was also taking place, to Odom mountain.

Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst and former president of the Center for Social Development, said political pressure on Buddhism was weak compared to the power of Buddhism in the hearts of Cambodians.

The relatively small size of Mam Sonando’s march may have been related to his political background, as both a “Beehive Radio” personality and former president of the Beehive Democratic Party. The radio is deeply involved in politics, Chea Vannath said.

“He was president of a political party running in an election,” she said. “He is the director of a well-known radio station in Cambodia. So one way or another, Mam Sonando is a political player. How can you separate him from a political figure?”

Laymen, monks and experts on Buddhism expressed their concern for the fact that Buddhism in Cambodia continues being implicated in politics.

The concern had existed for years, and it explodes once in a while. Recently the problem showed up again, when Mam Sonando’s march was rejected.

Mam Sonando told VOA Khmer from Koh Keo pagoda, Banteay Meanchey, that all pagodas welcomed his march except the first pagoda of Peam Sotharam. He said there were 45 marchers in his Dhamma Yeatra.

Mam Sonando said that the rejection of his march was politically motivated.

“I set it aside and will leave it for the monk to think about it,” he said. “He is supposed to serve Buddhism, but he is political, partisan and acts contrary to Buddhism.”