A group of monks Thursday overturned their alms bowls outside the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh in symbolic protest against the recent imprisonment of 18 activists, opposition figures and fellow monks.
More than 100 monks and activists first demonstrated outside the National Assembly at about 8 a.m. Thursday, frustrated that a petition submitted to the assembly last month went unanswered, before marching to the Justice Ministry with the hope of handing the document to Justice Minister Ang Vong Vattana. The petition calls for the release of the 18.
“Our aim today is to meet Ang Vong Vattana and for him to come out and take the petition to show that the Ministry of Justice can find justice for the people,” monk Hour Sophath said.
When Mr. Vong Vattana failed to appear over the next two hours, some 40 monks turned their alms bowls upside down, a powerful gesture of defiance indicating they would refuse to accept handouts from the minister.
“The top of the bowl is white to represent justice while the bottom is black to represent injustice, therefore we turned our bowls upside down to illustrate how our country is full of injustice and our people continue to suffer,” Hour Sophath offered as a secondary explanation for the gesture.
During anti-government protests in Burma in 2007, many monks turned their alms bowls upside down and refused to accept donations from members of the military government.
In a 2008 journal article, Ingrid Jordt, a scholar of Buddhism who focuses on Burma, explained the significance of the act of refusing to accept alms, calling it “the ultimate moral rebuke.”
“To refuse to accept someone’s donation is to deny that person the opportunity to earn merit,” she wrote of the act, known in Pali as “patam nikkujjana kamma.” “Merit is a moral condition that produces real world power and felicitous circumstances in one’s future life.”
Kim Santepheap, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, said by telephone afterward, however, that representatives of the protesters had declined an invitation to enter the ministry.
“The ministry sent representatives to receive the petition, but they did not hand it over and the ministry also invited [the protesters’] representatives to come inside…but they did not,” he said.
After overturning their alms bowls, the group continued on to the Royal Palace, where a representative of the palace promised to pass the petition along to King Norodom Sihamoni.
Thursday’s demonstration was just the latest calling for the release of the 18 people, all of whom are currently being held at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.