Eye on Southeast Asia: Secretary of State Dr. Khy Sovanaratna’s Great Hope for Cambodian Buddhist Diplomacy

Dr. Khy Sovanratana was, until very recently, one of Cambodia’s most senior monks. By 2 August, he had disrobed, and just a couple of weeks later on the 23rd, was appointed Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs in the new cabinet of PM Hun Manet. Even for a well-regarded former figure of Cambodian monasticism, this is a meteoric rise in a new career that he promises will inject Buddhist diplomacy into the very heart of Hun Manet’s government.

Dr. Sovanratana has been a dear friend for a while. We began running into each other since 2015, at events organized by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), India’s outsourced arm of Buddhist diplomacy. He has been a senior figure in the Cambodian Buddhist hierarchy for even longer, enjoying the title of Somdet and holding positions across a range of Buddhist institutions and educational bodies. Most prominently, he was a rector at Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University (PSRBU), but was forced to resign in 2022 when he was receiving extended treatment for severe stomach inflammation.

He had just returned to Cambodia from a 3-month sojourn in Canada on 20 July, and even more recently, took the dramatic step of disrobing early this month, much to the surprise of his Sangha-nayaka. But for Dr. Sovanratana, his monastic identity had begun to feel more constraining than liberating, more in crisis than in calm after his long illness and several other personal problems. “I felt so much pressure back at my home temple. I decided to inform my superiors that I would not live as a monk forever,” he told me over my congratulatory call to him.

Dr. Sovanratana as a monk. Image courtesy of Dr. Sovanratana

He had been a monk for 34 years, and it was unimaginable to his peers that he would quit despite being at the highest echelons of monastic influence. But just as he was pondering his next move, former PM-turned-powerbroker Hun Sen, who learned of Dr. Sovanratana’s resignation as rector of PSRBU, asked his son, the incoming PM, to extend a role to Dr. Sovanratana. After a flurry of discussions, including which portfolio he would be responsible for, Dr. Sovanratana got his first choice: a place in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

“I am so excited. This is what I have wanted to do for a long time, to serve my beloved country directly,” he told me. “This is the right place for me. Here at the Ministry, we have to monitor our foreign policy situation every day and analyze or foresee what will happen. I have been involved in discussions in situation rooms for the last few days. It is a dream come true and this is what I feel I can make a true contribution to.”

What he means is specifically Buddhist diplomacy, which is part of what the Cambodian government called “peace diplomacy,” a counterpart to economic diplomacy. “In my opinion, Buddhism is very relevant and plays a very important role in modern conditions, particularly now with many conflicts in the world. As my background is rooted in being a Buddhist monastic, I have a firsthand experience in actually participating in Buddhist diplomacy. This is my strength, so I would like to push this form of diplomacy to further heights. We will try to involve our fellow ASEAN members in this mission.”

Image courtesy of Dr. Khy Sovanratana

In this respect, Dr. Sovanratana has powerful associates to help him. “I have had supportive indications from my friend Chheang Vun, chairman of the Commission on Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation, Information, and Media in the National Assembly. He is fully behind me on supporting the expansion of peace diplomacy, of which Buddhism is a vital part for a Buddhist country like ours. The chairman has stressed that we will do more on this area of peace diplomacy and share our progress and ideas with other countries.” This cooperation between parliament and ministry is critical, as strong domestic support is as important as international interest in Cambodia’s Buddhist outreach.

Perhaps Dr. Sovanratana and I might see each other again in Indonesia, Malaysia, or wherever else Cambodia’s arm of peace settlement reaches. What I am certain of, is that I am extremely fortunate to have caught Dr. Sovanratana at this major milestone of his professional life, just as he commences his new ministerial post. I and many others will be watching his rise and work with great interest.

Support Our Dharma Work