Big Trouble at Killing Fields Pagoda

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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.

 

 

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A case of village justice in Cambodia

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Is a cop’s job to discourage bad behavior or to punish bad behavior? The local policeman in Bakong showed a very wise sense of judgement.

A couple of years back a girl attending Savong’s School  was harassed one evening by a group of local boys. Another student saw what was going on and the police were called from their station, a small building, not 200 meters away.

In a village like Bakong, 14 kms East of Siem Reap,  everybody knows everyone. It didn’t take long for the policeman, a genial fellow, to work out who the boys were. He went to each of their families and ordered the young men (all unemployed,) to meet him on Thursday morning at his police station. He also asked the girl to attend, as well as her witnesses; students from Savong’s School.

At the meeting the policeman, a well-built middle aged man in his olive green uniform, wore a judicial frown. After asking the witnesses to positively identify the young men he gave them a stern lecture. It was a grave experience for each guilty party because their parents were on hand as well. The feeling of shame was palpable. The policeman pointed out that they were on a bad path; a path that could lead directly to jail, and everyone knows in Siem Reap that this is not a good place. He told the boys that he had it within his power to send the boys to prison right away. In fact he could see no reason why not to, he told them. The boys were on the precipice. There were gasps in the crowded room.

Then the policeman who single-handedly played the good-cop, bad-cop routine said something unexpected. “If the young student asks me to send you boys to jail, I will do so immediately. It is up to the girl and her friends.”

The students formed a huddle and clearly they too were shaken by the enormity of the consequences here. Jail? After a few moments they asked if they could take the problem away with them to school where they would discuss their response with their classmates. The policeman gave them to the next day, and ordered the young men to turn up, with their parents the next morning.

At Savong’s School the senior students discussed at length what would be suitable justice. Soon they came up with a fair response. And so they turned up at the Friday morning meeting at the small police station in Bakong.

“What is your decision?” asked the policeman.

The students outlined their thinking. That the boys were clearly guilty of serious behaviour – cornering the girl and being sexually suggestive – but that jail was too harsh. Their recommendation was to let the boys off “this time” but that next time they would not hesitate to recommend jail.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The young men were suitably chastened and, no doubt, faced their forms of domestic justice from their parents who had been disgraced by their sons. The policeman let the boys know that they had been very lucky that the students had been so forgiving this time.

And so justice was dispensed and, to my knowledge, the boys have walked a straight and narrow path ever since.

I’m critical, deeply critical, of Cambodia’s weak justice system whereby the rich and powerful can apparently get away, scot free, after a hit and run accident,  while a poor farmer can be jailed for years for protesting the illegal acquisition of his land and livelihood.

But on another level I totally admire the fair work of the local policeman in Bakong. His wisdom and local knowledge mean, I’m sure, that he has never needed to unlock the rifle cupboard that he keeps on show with its old Chinese army rifles. Neither did he press formal charges. Instead, knowledge, shame and a reminder of what “could happen” is armament enough for the policeman to keep the peace in this rural community.

For another story from Savong School – The boy who was nearly sold.

Or a story about An actual folk tale from Cambodia

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