Global Economics

Cambodia’s Monks Join Battle Over Raising Minimum Wage


Cambodian Buddhist monks stand together as they participate in a garment workers strike in front of a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Jan. 2

Photograph by Heng Sinith/AP Photo

Cambodian Buddhist monks stand together as they participate in a garment workers strike in front of a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Jan. 2

But Buntenh, a 34-year-old Cambodian monk, is in hiding. Since last week’s crackdown on striking garment workers and supporters of the opposition political party in Phnom Penh, he’s been sleeping in the spare rooms of like-minded non-governmental organizations. He was briefly detained by police and then released on Jan. 2. Now he keeps on the move. The organization he founded—the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ)—doesn’t have a fixed office anyway.

But was born in the jungle not far from Angkor Wat, one of 12 children in a poor family. After studying in India, he returned to Cambodia to become a teacher, but quit to devote himself full-time to the country’s burgeoning social justice movement. Over the past five years, rampant land-grabbing has eroded the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s support in many rural areas, formerly the party’s stronghold. Although the CPP claimed victory in the national election last July, many independent observers, including But, believe the election was rigged.

I met him in a small room on the top floor of a building in Phnom Penh, where he had few worldly possessions other than a laptop, tablet computer, and smartphone, all plugged into wall outlets and charging. But founded the IMNSJ a month after the disputed election to mobilize Cambodian monks to press for economic reforms benefiting the poor and powerless.

Already the monk network has about 5,000 active members who share information via Facebook (FB), Skype, and Link, a social network popular in Cambodia. Communicating via social networks is cheaper and probably safer than making phone calls, says But, who believes the authorities monitor his calls.

Last month he dispatched a team of “monk reporters” to record and post online information about the union-led strike to raise garment workers’ minimum wage, which began on Dec. 25. His monks also documented the bloody crackdown by military police on Jan. 3, which left four garment workers dead.

Minimum-wage battles may not seem like an obvious cause for religious leaders. “We aren’t supposed to be asking for or care about money,” he jokes. But is trying to convince his network members that “the suffering of ordinary people is the suffering of monks” and that “people living in hardship situations can do little to help themselves or help the country.”

The rallies organized by the opposition party and the union-led worker strikes together drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Phnom Penh in December—a hopeful moment akin to a “Cambodian Spring.” Now the strike has been called off, and two key union leaders are in jail. Yet But doesn’t want to let the spirit of hope for a better future die easily. “I am trying to encourage monks to become more political,” he says. “We cannot wait for our political parties to change; we must do it ourselves.”

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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