Student profile – Savong’s School

chai-chun

Chai Chun lives at the Rokar Monastery just 1km away from Savong’s School. 

My name is Chun, 26, and I am a grade 9 student of Rokar Buddhist School, staying at Rokar Pagoda currently.

I was born on the 9 of March, 1991 in Donteav village, Roluos commune, Bakong district, Siem Reap province, Cambodia. I have 5 siblings. I am the third child in the family. My older sister has married and she has one child.

My father’s name is Mon Thear, 54, and he is a farmer. My mother is Pheak, 52, a housewife looking after the house and the children. My parents try very hard to earn money for me. My grandparents can earn a little money to support the family but my family is poor because there is too little family income.

Every day I learn at Buddhist school; I really miss my family at times. Besides studying time, I take time to study English at Savong School Cambodia. I like English so much; I want to be an IT teacher. I feel real pity for my parents, supporting and taking care of my siblings.

Sometimes my grandparents call on my parents and me and I also feel sad for them because every day they try so hard to work for the whole family. I like chanting the dharma. I love my parents so much. I want to have a better life in the future.

Thank you Vann Salas for interviewing Chai Chun and translating.

 

 

Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

CAMBODIA PLUS BACK TO WORK MAY 09 140.JPG

Praying for a harmonious, righteous future.

In late 2004, I was working in my New Zealand office when a startling email arrived. It was sent from an internet cafe near Pub Street, Siem Reap where half an hour online cost poor students two dollars.  Back then internet access was not common.

The startling thing about the email was the headline: Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda.

An incident had occurred at Wat Thmey which is on the northern edge of Siem Reap. This is the general scene of the local killing fields; though an international hotel now occupies some of that tragic land. Wat Thmey, because of its location and history has, since the late 1990s, seen a lot of tourist buses.  It is a reflective place to visit I feel, with the stupa containing skulls and bones collected by my friend Savong’s father – pictured above.

But what was the Big Trouble? It turns out a couple of the senior monks were pocketing most of the donations from visiting groups – mostly Japanese and Koreans – and were doing this at the expense of the wider work of the monastery which ran a school, gave homes to homeless children, and trained young monks.

Savong described how a big group of locals had gathered, how angry words were exchanged and how the ‘bad monks’ had been sent packing. A case of village justice I think.

That account quickly unravelled my beautifully stitched together impression of all monks as being very holy people. As with any faith we might care to name; there are bound to be a few bad apples.

Here the lead paragraph from a 2010 story:

Two Cambodian Buddhist monks have been arrested in the popular tourist city of Siem Reap for smoking crystal methamphetamine along with two women in their pagoda.

Or from the Phnom Penh Post, again in 2010.

Phnom Penh – Following the turmoil surrounding the distribution by Bluetooth phone of videos showing several naked women taking their holy bath, the police uncovered more than 300 other pictures in the phone memory of a former monk. The pictures were recovered during a search and arrest made on 26 June 2010. Some of pictures were videos while others were still photos.

In that case the monk was defrocked, (he changed into civilian clothes,) before his arrest.

In 2015 in Phnom Penh six monks were arrested after beating up a mot driver, but charges were dropped. The story is complicated, but the Cambodia Daily account suggests that the driver is the one who started the fracas. He was compensated a million riel.

In 2016 there have been at least three news stories: two very serious cases of rape by individual monks, and just recently a case of 19 young Cambodian monks arrested in Phuket, Thailand for failing to have visas into Thailand, and for soliciting – begging for cash.

Stories like these occur from time to time and rightfully shock the Cambodian community, but unless I’m badly mistaken, the Buddhist church does not cover things up or further victimise victims.

I should end on a note of warning. Not all monks are legitimate. Read this excerpt from the helpful website MoveToCambodia.com

The fake monk scam. Fake monks are usually Chinese and are often (but not always) dressed in brown or mustard-colored robes, unlike the bright orange garb of their authentic Khmer counterpart, and will wear pants underneath their robes. They are usually middle-aged, while most Cambodian monks are in their twenties or even younger. Fake monks don’t usually speak any Khmer and very little English, other than to demand more money. They often wear wooden prayer beads and offer people bracelets or amulets. Fake monks will often collect money well into the night, unlike real monks who only collect in the morning. Perhaps most importantly, it’s reported that they don’t seem to know anything about Buddhism.

Love that last telltale detail!

Another characteristic of fake monks is that they argue and insist you give more than the few riel or dollars you may have donated. They’re big trouble.

For more: Another case of village justice.

 

 

In Cambodia – social hierarchy is important

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Cambodians have a very strong sense of hierarchy within society. Parents are superior to children, teachers to students and managers to subordinates. Even in the way the Khmer language is structured: the various pronouns recognise the relationship between two people in conversation.And, as ever-faithful Wikipedia points out, there are rich traces of hierarchical or social classifications in everyday language.

The Khmer language reflects a somewhat different classification of Khmer society based on a more traditional model and characterized by differing linguistic usages (see Languages, this ch.). This classification divided Cambodian society into three broad categories: royalty and nobility, clergy, and laity. The Khmer language had—and to a lesser extent still has—partially different lexicons for each of these groups. For example, nham (to eat) was used when speaking of oneself or to those on a lower social level; pisa (to eat) was used when speaking politely of someone else; chhan (to eat) was used of Buddhist clergy, and saoy (to eat) was used of royalty.

You can see hierarchical behaviors in everyday scenes. Monks can be seen walking in rank order, highest in front and most junior at the rear.

A feature of social hierarchy in Cambodia is the “patron-client” relationship in which wealth and power trump poverty and dependence. You see this expressed on a grand scale (the Prime Minister’s patronage/power versus the public) but also on an everyday level where a village elder who is both typically older and wealthier than the people under his patronage, may have many people obligated to him in return for this or that favour.  That’s the essence of the hierarchical relationship: it isn’t held together by overt power so much as by nuanced reciprocity. This from Dr Judy Ledgerwood in her paper: Understanding Cambodia: Social Hierarchy, Patron-Client Relationships and Power.

Both sides provide goods and services to the other. The patron possesses superior power and influence and uses them to assist his clients. The clients in return provide smaller services and loyalty over an extended period of time. The relationship is complementary, with both sides benefiting. The client is protected and assured a minimum level of subsistence. The patron in turn has followers, who serve to increase his power.

The relationship between the patron and the client is a personal one. The clients are not united as a group; rather they are linked to the patron by personal obligation. This then works in a pyramid fashion, midlevel patrons know someone higher and they in turn know someone higher – up the social ladder. The only way to get something that is beyond your capacity is to attach yourself to a superior.

Where does this social stratification come from? It is thought that it originates more than 1000 years ago in the Hindu caste system, though it has been tempered by the more egalitarian Buddhist philosophy. But herein lies a spiritual dimension to the patron-client relationship. There is an inference that success and power in life reflects one’s spiritual attainment and that you are my patron not simply because you are powerful, but because you are spiritually more blessed having shown great piety in your life.

Again, one can see this linkage, quite overtly in the political theatre – and it’s not unique to Cambodia – where powerful leaders invoke religious devoutness in their various ceremonies. But the charade kind of works! A good patron must do as a good Buddhist – and be generous of spirit, and grant favours to the less fortunate. In a sense there is some social control here to ensure a measure of fairness in an otherwise unequal relationship.

But the social acceptance and institutionalization of hierarchy has a dark side as well. As my patron, you might expect me to show my humility (when asking you for a favour,) by granting you an offering. Fair enough? Though at what point does this constitute simply a bribe?

And in an increasingly complex society who are my Patrons? One hundred years ago it might have been easier to answer this. My village elder perhaps. Or the head monk at my monastery.  But today a villager must also pay respect to the village elder, the local police, quite possibly the local political part organisation, not to mention the bank.

Meanwhile these patrons are bound less by religious values, and more by the desire for more power, or greater wealth. The old rules may apply, but the game has changed.

Foreigners are often greeted with a long list of questions as Khmer try to ascertain your place in the hierarchy. Are you the President of your company? Or a low level employee? Are you a friend of the Government and the Minister in charge?

I recall Savong telling me of an incident that occurred 3 years ago. A policeman was trying to bribe him, and he wanted Savong to meet him at Police HQ, Bakong to “sort out a little matter.” According to the Policeman the District Governor was “most displeased” with Savong’s School because it wasn’t registered. (Actually it was, and Savong had the papers.)

The Policeman phrased his story as a Patron. Look, he had contacts with the Governor’s office, and for a small consideration (of several hundred dollars) he could sort this matter out.

“Why don’t we sort this matter out right now?” replied Savong cheerily. “I have the Governor himself on speed-dial.”

And he did, because he’d had genial dealings with the Governor a few months earlier. He picked up his phone.

As soon as Savong began dialling, the panicky Policeman back-pedalled and said there was no need to call and that there had been a terrible misunderstanding. No money was required, there had simply been a mix-up.

When he first told me the story I saw it as a naked example of corruption and bribery. Clear and simple. But now I see the exchange as a much more nuanced exchange, where a young cop wasn’t simply asking for a bribe – he was trying to create a dependency relationship; he was trying to elevate himself, power-wise, up above my friend.

This is one game that any NGO leader needs to be good at playing. A few years earlier the outcome of that meeting could have been quite different.

Portrait of Savong – October 2004

Svay Savong - October 2004

Svay Savong – October 2004

This photo was taken 10 years ago when Savong was in his early 20s. He is seated in the small temple on the island of West Baray and if I recall correctly, Savong asked me to take this photo, so it was – on those terms – a formal portrait.

The day was a Friday, and on two previous evenings I had taught at the small classroom at his father’s house, and so on this morning I had suggested that Savong and Pin come with me and be tourists for a day: we took a tuk tuk out past the airport and first visited the silk farm, and the we came back via West Baray, catching a small longboat out the island,

It was relaxing, and in my memory we three were the only people on the island, but of course that’s not true because there was a band of blind musicians playing traditional music which set the tone, by turns moving and festive, and Pin, Savong and myself explored the island, and the two young guys also took up fishing off a small jetty. Pin was expert at catching the small pufferfish that would swell up like golfballs which he would line up on the wooden dock, their little gills heaving, and Pin would flick them back into the water where the fish would  jettison away. Swoosh!

While Pin remained fishing, Savong showed me to the small wooden temple, and – taking our shoes off – we entered.

As you can see; incense was burning, and it’s fragrance wafted in the light breeze. We took photos, and as he sat, Savong explained the significance of the cross-legged pose, and showed me how I should hold my hands. There’s a photo of me sitting in the same position as Savong, but it is an awkward facsimile of this photo – me in my black t-shirt, my legs in agony as I try to emulate the lotus position.

But this photo captures the Savong I first met. He is still attending classes at high school, his market-bought jeans are too long and need tailoring – but never mind that. He is devout, determined, and he fixes my camera with a confident stare into the lens.

Soon after this we sat near the musicians and as we watched them play, and listened to their sweet, plaintive music Savong told me about his dream to open a school in the countryside.

“How you think brother?” From everything I had seen in Cambodia to that point, it was a perfect idea.

Pin was still on the jetty with his small bamboo fishing rod. Savong however, had just caught a bigger and more willing fish.

For more about Savong:

An unexpected moment in Cambodia

An unexpected moment in Cambodia

One of the things I love about being in Cambodia is the unexpectedness of things. I took this photo when I was on the road between Tonle Sap lake and Siem Reap. I had stopped for directions to a local pottery, which was just 100 metres away as it turned out. Suddenly there was a clanging and a commotion of chants, of motorbike horns and of singing.

I looked up and saw this colorful and good natured parade. I’m not sure what the occasion was – a wedding? a Buddhist ceremony at the nearby temple? I’m really not sure. But I was reminded that life in rural Cambodia may be governed by the daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset; of the morning crow of roosters and of the scorching midday sun – but life is seldom dull or monotonous.

Khmer society is richly textured with ceremonies and celebrations.

The Tiger on my Desk

Cambodia. The cook and the sociable monk

Cambodia. The cook and the sociable monk

One weekend I was out at the SOC and was surprised and a bit puzzled by the arrival of a monk. There’s a local temple nearby, the Bakong monastery, and the day previous a group of monks had been fund-raising: asking alms from local villagers. So I readied some dollars just in case. But this monk turned out to be the brother of the SOC cook, and he was paying a family visit. Us tourists to Cambodia often forget that the monks come from everyday families and, rather than focus on religious thoughts 24 hours a day, are often simply wondering: “how’s my sister doing?”