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Buddhism Revives in Cambodia After Years of Marxist Persecution

WITH deep satisfaction, Ko Wan surveys the spiked roof taking shape atop his new temple. Like thousands of other monks in Cambodia, Ko Wan saw his pagoda destroyed by the Khmer Rouge shortly after the left-wing radicals, headed by Pol Pot, came to power in 1975. He then joined the forced exodus to the countryside where many monks were singled out for harsh treatment and never returned.

Ko was one of the lucky ones. Today, he's back at Sraschap Pagoda, presiding over its restoration.

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``Pol Pot betrayed the people. His forces eliminated the monks and the pagodas and forced the people not to believe in the Buddha,'' says the elderly monk. ``Today people are returning to worship in the pagodas and can believe in the Buddha.''

After years of brutally enforced silence, Buddhism is finding a voice again in Cambodia. The revival stirred with the official sanction of the ruling communists, who recognize the power of religion in this deeply traditional society.

In the last two years, the government, which is said to include devout Buddhists, has used religion as a political weapon against the resurging Khmer Rouge.

During its four-year rule in the late 1970s, the Marxist group destroyed nearly all Cambodia's 3,000 pagodas and devastated the community of monks in the pursuit of a radical agrarian revolution. Of the estimated 50,000 monks before Khmer Rouge rule, only a few thousand remained.

In addition to the Khmer Rouge brutality, their attack on religion stirred deep hatred and resentment in a country that cherishes the five towers of the famous Angkor Wat temples as a national symbol.

AT a religious shrine at Pulepati, about 20 miles from Phnom Penh, Chea Chin, a 72-year-old temple assistant, places incense in front of a broken Buddha.

``Pol Pot forces came here, broke the Buddha and forced me to leave,'' says the man. ``During Pol Pot time, no one could openly pray to Buddha, give food to Buddha or go to the pagoda. We could do it only in our minds.''

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``Politics is lost on most people,'' says an international aid worker. ``But when they started pulling down the pagodas, that made a big impact. To many Cambodians, that represented the tearing down of thousands of years of history.''

After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and installed the current government in Phnom Penh, religion still was slow to revive.

The new regime, under the influence of hard-line Vietnamese communist ideologues, tolerated some religious expression but kept tight wraps on temple activities.

That began to change in 1989 when Vietnam withdrew most of its troops from Cambodia and the Cambodian government resanctioned religious freedom and Buddhism as the state religion. There are now 20,000 Buddhist monks and more than 2,700 restored temples, government officials say.

Since then, in one of Cambodia's many political twists, a group of communist hard-liners (who are also devout Buddhists, traditionalists, and nationalists) have taken the upper hand in Phnom Penh.

``The traditional role of religion is returning,'' says a longtime Western observer in Phnom Penh. ``The restrictions on the monks have been lifted, and they are once again collecting alms.''

At Sraschap Pagoda, life is returning. After the harsh years of the Khmer Rouge in western Cambodia, Ko Wan came back to Phnom Penh in 1981. Four years later, he began lobbying the government to open the pagoda's traditional school for young monks, winning approval last year.

Today, 45 monks, ages 18 to 40, are in training at the pagoda, 1 of only 5 such schools. Nationally, fewer than 1,000 youths are enrolled because of a shortage of teachers and government concerns that many will choose religious life to avoid military service.

Indeed, thousands of youths are on the waiting list, many drawn by the exemption from the draft and the opportunity to receive education and basic necessities in a country torn by war.

Vong Sun, 24, a student with a shaved head and saffron robe, is one of the privileged few. ``I believe in the Buddha and want to serve him,'' Mr. Vong says.

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