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Returned Buddhist Monks Could Benefit Cambodia


UNTIL recently Wat Prasat Serey was the largest Cambodian Buddhist monastery in the world. Now it is shutting down. Strange, considering that new monasteries are popping up all over Cambodia. But Wat Prasat Serey is located in Site 2, a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border, where up to 200,000 Cambodians have been living on United Nations handouts, waiting since 1979 for an end to the civil war that has disabled their country.

Last Oct. 23, a peace agreement was finally signed between Cambodia's Vietnamese-backed government and the Khmer Rouge-led resistance coalition. The UN has promised that all the camps will be emptied before the elections in 1993. Almost half the camps' 350,000 residents have already returned home.

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Decades of civil war, genocide, and corruption have left Cambodians with a deep distrust of their own leaders. There is some hope that the Buddhist community will fill a leadership void left by discredited politicians. And it is in the resurrection of the religious community that the returnees may exert the greatest influence.

Images of rice fields littered with human skulls have become well-known symbols of the Khmer Rouge era. A million of Cambodia's 7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge's four-year reign of terror. But what is rarely discussed is the Khmer Rouge's destruction of the Buddhist culture of Cambodia that had been the framework for Cambodian society.

Cambodia has historically been and still is a rural society; most people live in small villages made up of little more than a few family rice farms. The local monastery was traditionally the center for village education as well as social and cultural life.

When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 there were 2,800 monasteries in Cambodia. About 1,900 were completely destroyed. Monks were slaughtered by the thousands. The cultural revolution that the Khmer Rouge had planned demanded that no institutions other than ANGKA, the "organization," or the party, could exist.

In 1979, Vietnam's invasion overthrew the Khmer Rouge. But religion was still suppressed under the communist government Vietnam installed. Only in April 1989, was Buddhism again recognized as the national religion of Cambodia, although the state maintained strict control of the monkhood. In the meantime Cambodian monks living in exile, abroad and in the border camps, enjoyed relative freedom, struggling with difficult questions about how to resuscitate Buddhism.

Site 2's sprawling collection of bamboo shacks would seem an unlikely place for a religious movement to emerge. But it was here that many of the monks began to adopt the philosophy of "engaged Buddhism," which links Buddhism with Western development theory. Site 2's monasteries have created programs in which monks are trained in areas such as conflict mediation, agriculture and finance. By getting monks involved, hands-on, in resolving disputes, digging wells, and teaching finance to farmers who have his torically fallen prey to loan sharks, they hoped to place monks in the center of Cambodia's redevelopment. It is a philosophy born out of a concern that in order for Buddhism to reemerge as a central force in Cambodian society, it must be able to offer more than spirituality. As Sam Borin, a newspaper editor in Site 2 and a former monk, said "No one thinks about Buddhism when there is no food to eat."

The monks are returning to a Cambodia that is almost bankrupt. Despite the peace, the civil war will continue to devastate the countryside. Every month 400 people lose a limb by stepping on mines laid during the conflict. At a recent 10-nation Cambodian peace conference in Beijing, the Khmer Rouge continued to refuse to disarm its troops. It is in this desperate environment that the monks will try to reestablish Cambodia's Buddhist traditions.

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There is no way to tell whether "Buddhist development" will catch on outside the camps. But there are signs of interest. The Supreme Patriarchs of the Cambodian monkhood, Venerable Thep Vong, appointed by the Vietnamese-backed government, and Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the most important monk to return from exile, have together called for a monk training seminar on community development and conflict resolution, to begin later in November.

The image of being "caught between a tiger and a crocodile," often used to describe the hopelessness of Cambodian existence, applies here. If the monks opt to modernize, they risk diluting an already fragile Buddhist culture with western secular concerns. But if they return to the shelter of monastery life they may become irrelevant to Cambodian society except as cultural relics. Should the monks retire to the monasteries to preside over funerals and festivals? Or should they be building fish farms and r unning wat-based community banks? The outcome of the debate will shape the reconstructed face of Cambodian culture.

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