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Cambodian Monks Revered Less

September 11, 1998

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Lying in a hospital bed with an intravenous drip in his arm, Buddhist monk Seng Bun Chhoeun figures he will recover from the beating he received from Cambodian riot police. It’s the mental scars that may not heal.

``I’m not so physically hurt,″ said Seng Bun Chhoeun, 23. ``But it hurts so much in my heart.″

In recent weeks, scores of Buddhist monks have joined students and thousands of other Cambodians in protests calling for an end to authoritarian leader Hun Sen’s 13-year rule. When riot police were unleashed on the demonstrators this week, the holy men were not spared.

The attacks on the monks, who have been kicked, clubbed and shot at, have helped to swell opposition to Hun Sen.

But attacking monks _ once held in untouchable reverence by Cambodians _ reflects changes in Cambodian society as much as Hun Sen’s determination to hold power.

Critics have accused the younger generation of monks of becoming too involved with politics and less concerned about the Buddha’s teachings since U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993 attempted to bring democracy to the country.

In addition, monks have been involved in violent assaults and sex scandals in recent months, further diminishing respect for their robes. Budhhist monks are barred from staring at or having long conservations with women. Music and amassing personal wealth are also off limits.

In one high-profile case, a monk stabbed a student who had asked him to stop singing at the pagoda where both men lived. A pagoda is a type of religious sanctuary.

The monk has disappeared, and the student never received the $26 compensation he demanded for the wound on his arm. But the case attracted wide attention in the country.

``It was disgraceful for Buddhism in Cambodia,″ said Sok Pin, deputy director of religious affairs at the Ministry of Cults and Religions, whose office is receiving more than 10 complaints a month about monk misbehavior.

In recent months, a monk was arrested at a temple in Phnom Penh and jailed for drug-trafficking. Two monks at another temple were beaten up by local residents for allegedly embezzling donations. They were subsequently defrocked.

Cambodia’s most widely read magazine, Popular, featured a story in August on a marriage that broke up when a husband caught a monk propositioning his wife. The husband beat up the monk, divorced his wife and took the two children with him.

Cambodia had more than 70,000 monks before 1975. But after the Khmer Rouge came to power, they abolished religion, forcing monks to abandon their robes and perform hard labor.

Most of the 3,290 temples were destroyed or turned into prisons or cages for raising pigs. There is no record of how many monks were executed or died.

Religious practices were revived after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979. Nearly 47,000 monks now reside in 3,612 temples across the country. But most are relatively young and have few real Buddhist leaders to look to for guidance.

Still, Sok Pin said 95 percent of Cambodians follow Buddhism. And the religion is often regarded as the pillar of the country’s recovery.

But Cambodia is a country of few rules, where the elite live by corruption and Khmer Rouge killers join the government. In such an environment, many monks break the rules and lose the sheen of symbolizing good moral conduct.

Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said recent incidents involving monks are ``just a reflection of the society.″

``Who are those monks? Where are they from?″ Lao Mong Hay asked. ``They are from society, they are just lay people going to monkhood, and when they don’t abide by Buddhist teaching and disciplines, then it is just lay people in yellow robes. No more, no less.″

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