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Cambodia’s Supreme Patriarch passes away at 93

Tep Vong played a vital role in rebuilding Buddhism following the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
The Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, Tep Vong, left, has died at the age of 93.

The Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, Tep Vong, left, has died at the age of 93. (Photo: YouTube screen grab) 

Published: February 27, 2024 04:27 AM GMT
Updated: February 27, 2024 11:41 AM GMT

The Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, Tep Vong, who played a vital role in re-establishing the Buddhist clergy following the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, died on Feb. 26 from natural causes after several weeks in a Phnom Penh hospital. He was 93.

Flags at public and private institutions were flying at half-mast across the country and all forms of entertainment on public and private television and radio were suspended for 24 hours following a government directive.

“The passing of Venerable Tep Vong is the loss of a rare resource in Buddhism,” Prime Minister Hun Manet said in a statement carried by Agence Kampuchea Presse. “He has left behind many achievements.” 

All religions were strictly forbidden under the Khmer Rouge, including Theravada Buddhism, the state religion since the 13th century. Tep Vong was among the first monks to be re-ordained after the Vietnamese invasion ended Pol Pot’s reign of terror in January 1979.

He worked tirelessly with the pro-Vietnamese communists that ruled Cambodia over the next decade, which encouraged Theravada Buddhism “in a limited way” before it was fully restored as Cambodia's state religion in 1993 when United Nations peacekeepers were preparing to leave.

In 2006, Tep Vong was named Great Supreme Patriarch of Dhamma Mahanikaya of Cambodia, where 93 percent of the population count themselves as Buddhist — nearly all are Theravadins — and in a country rebuilt after a 30-year war on the motto: “Nation Religion King”.

A joint statement by the Ministry of Cults and Religion and the Board of the Buddhist Monks said:

"Venerable Tep Vong, Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, passed away on Monday at 5:40 p.m. local time at the Ounalom pagoda in Phnom Penh due to illness at the age of 93."

Former prime minister Hun Sen and father of Hun Manet had visited him alongside other leaders to pay their respects after he was admitted to Calmette Hospital on Jan. 6. 

“My wife and I are deeply saddened,” Hun Sen said in a statement.

“Your death is the loss of a great monk, the great son of the peasant who joined the national liberation movement and built pagodas to promote the revival of Buddhism,” he said.

Venerable Yon Seng Yeat, deputy head of the Sangha Council secretariat was quoted by local media, after Tep Vongwas taken to hospital, as saying that he “has no disease other than his old age.”

He also said Tep Vong was weak, unable to eat and only able to drink a little water: “He still remembers well and knows all the monks. But now he does not say much.”

Tep Vong was born in the northwestern town of Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat and its 12th century temples, on Jan. 12 1932.

At 10-years of age he went to study at nearby Wat Reach Bo and was ordained as a novice six years later, before full ordination when he reached 21 years of age.

He was forced into hard labour after the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and during the Vietnamese-backed war crimes tribunal in mid-1979, he accused Pol Pot of personally killing more than 50 monks, three of his nephews among them.

But in later years Tep Vong was more lenient. According to author Ian Harris, he once compared Ieng Sary — Pol Pot’s foreign minister — with “a ruthless brigand who completely transforms after a conversion to Buddhism.”

His body will be kept at Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh for religious rites, until a cremation ceremony is held on a yet to be announced date.

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