In Cambodia, a country of remarkable ethnic unity (close to 95% of the population is ethnically Khmer) and with the religion of Buddhism dominant, religious extremism has been absent. What is new and notable is the emergence of political activism among some Buddhist monks. 

Over the past year there have been frequent reports of Cambodian Buddhist monks taking part in anti-government demonstrations.

Some of these demonstrations are linked directly to protests mounted by supporters of the Cambodian National Rescue Party headed by Sam Rainsy, and others to such issues as garment workers' wages and calls for the protection of environmentally threatened forests. Very recently, Buddhist monks have been among those protesting against the agreement reached between Australia and Cambodia for the transfer of asylum seekers to Cambodia.

By comparison with the role of monks in Sihanouk's Cambodia during the 1950s and 1960s, when the Buddhist sangha was largely passive, or to a limited extent supportive of the ruling regime, such contemporary political activism offers a marked contrast with the past.

Some qualification is nevertheless required. During the worst years of Vietnamese control of Cambodia in the early decades of the 19th century it is clear that Buddhist monks played an important part in sustaining a shared sense of Cambodian identity. And in the period of French colonialism the sangha was involved in resisting, if only passively, efforts by the French to interfere in what it saw as fundamental elements of the country's culture, for instance, the French attempt to introduce a romanticised written form of the Cambodia language. Moreover, Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the one major protest against French rule during the Second World War, the so-called 'Revolt of the Parasols' in 1942, which took its name from the fact that monks were carrying their saffron-coloured umbrellas as they protested. All this noted, it is correct to say that before the victory of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 Cambodian Buddhism at no stage played the overt political role seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as in Burma both before and after independence or, in very different circumstances, in South Vietnam in the 1960s.

Under the Khmer Rouge Buddhist observance was abolished and all monks forced to defrock, though as the most authoritative Western observer of Cambodian Buddhism, Ian Harris, has noted in his important book, Buddhism Under Pol Pot, there have been two instances of monks continuing to live out their role despite general regime opposition. The Vietnamese invasion and the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime at the beginning of 1979 saw the slow re-emergence of Buddhist practices and a sangha closely linked to and controlled by the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government. While the degree of government control has now been loosened since the early 1990s, there is good reason to endorse Ian Harris' view expressed in his book published that the 'problems affecting the sangha remain deep and seemingly intractable.' Noting the presence of 'corruption and stagnation', Harris aptly observes that the 'Buddhist order is, in fact, the mirror of a wider society'. In this regard, the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, Tep Vong, is widely recognised as having been, and still remaining, a firm supporter of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.

It is against this background that some Buddhist monks have become more active in playing overtly political roles, taking advantage of the right they now have to vote and increasingly turning to the use of social media. It is difficult to provide a precise figure for those who are involved in this activism. The Independent Monk's Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ) established in 2013 claims a membership of 5000. This figure needs to be placed against a total membership of the sangha between 5-7000. It appears that political activism is mostly found among monks based in Phnom Penh.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a return to the pattern of the past in which Buddhist monks played little active part in the political life of Cambodia. At the same time, and just as Ian Harris has reflected on the sangha mirroring society at large, the evidence of the past two years suggests that a sea change has occurred in Cambodian politics. This change is a reflection of a sharp demographic shift so that over 50% of the population are now under 30 and the staggeringly rapid rise of new social media. Human rights groups are now more active and outspoken, so that it should not be a surprise that change has also taken place among the Buddhist clergy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Luc Forsyth.