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Buddhism and Revolution in Cambodia

From April 1975 until the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia at the every end of 1978, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot attempted to institute one of the most radical revolutions in modern history. The government of what was called Democratic Kampuchea set out in a ruthless manner to create a fundamentally new order. It was to be a racially "pure" society, in particular one purged of Vietnamese. It was to have no antecedents; all institutions of the past were to be destroyed. Not only were institutions associated with the pro-US government of Lon Nol, the neutralist government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and the colonial regime under the French to be rejected, but even bona fide Khmer institutions that could be traced to the precolonial past were to be rooted out and destroyed. Foremost among these was the Sangha, or the Buddhist order of monks.

For at least six centuries monks of the Theravda Buddhist tradition had lived in wats (temple monasteries) in nearly every community in the country. These monks had practiced and taught a religion based on the belief that the suffering we all experience as a part of life can be traced to desire or passion. Only by cooling the desires of lust, aggression, avariciousness, and deceit is it possible to transcend and perhaps ultimately escape an existence marred by constant suffering.

From 1353, when the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor fell to Thai conquerors, until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power, the people of Cambodia experienced much suffering. Their country was invaded many times by foreign powers, and often they were ruled by weak or corrupt leaders. Through all these hardships, the Buddhist Sangha remained a refuge of peace, its founder and its members symbolizing compassion and the avoidance of anger.

In the late 1960s (the last time anyone was able to make a count) there were some 65,000 monks and novices in Cambodia's 3,369 wats. During the war between 1970 and 1975 more than one-third of the wats were destroyed; many monks and novices were killed, left the order, or became refugees, Still, Buddhism remained a vital basis for Khmer life until the end of the war in 1975. Cambodian Buddhism was not to benefit, however, by the end of the war in April 1975. The new Khmer Rouge government under Pol Pot sought to systematically obliterate Buddhism from Cambodian society.

Destruction of Buddhism by the Khmer Rouge

In 1979, after the Pol Pot government had been forced out of Phnom Penh and the new government of Heng Samrin had assumed power, there were probably fewer than 100 Khmer monks left, the vast majority of whom were living in exile in Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge declared Buddhism to be a "reactionary religion" and denied its adherents even the theoretical rights accorded to other religions in the constitution. In 1978, Yun Yat, minister of culture in the Khmer Rouge regime, told Yugoslav journalists that "Buddhism is dead, and the ground has been cleared for the foundations of a new revolutionary culture." If the religion was dead, that is because the Khmer Rouge had killed it. An estimate made in 1980 showed that five out of every eight monks had been executed during the Pol Pot regime; those monks and novices who were not killed were forced to disrobe, Temple-monasteries were turned into storage centers, prisons, even extermination camps. Images of the Buddha were often decapitated, desecrated in other ways, or buried.

The story of the venerable Chea Tong, a monk who survived the 1975-1979 period, is typical. A story in the Far Eastern Economic Review relates how he and about 100 of his fellow monks and novices were forced to leave their wat in Phnom Penh. They walked to a community about 50km north, where they were forced to disrobe and were told that "religion was feudal and oppressive and monks were useless parasites..., leeches living off the blood of the people." During the Pol Pot period, Chea Tong's monastic companions disappeared; some, he heard, had been executed. The temple-monastery in the community in which he continued to live and work was "turned into a food storehouse and pigs were kept in front of the temple." Khmer Rouge soldiers, in an act that was a violent inversion of the rite of dedication of a new image, "shot the giant cement statue of the Buddha inside the temple between the eyes."

In no other communist state, including even Tibet, has a materialist ideology been so radically imposed at the expense of a spiritual tradition. In the case of the Khmer Rouge, its attack on Buddhism went well beyond a Marxist notion that religion serves to disguise class relations. The Khmer Rouge sought, by eliminating the institution that had for so long served as the basic source of Khmer identity, to create a new order that had absolutely no roots in the past. The history of the new Democratic Kampuchean utopia was to be written by the revolution alone.

In the end, the effort to create an agrarian utopia purged of all "undesirable" elements proved to be untenable. Although the Khmer Rouge had come to power in no small part because of its link to the communist revolution in Vietnam, by early 1977 relations between Democratic Kampuchea and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had become extremely hostile. In late December 1978, after two years of border clashes, the Vietnamese sent a military force into Cambodia, driving the Democratic Kampuchean government out of Phnom Penh. The country was once again plunged into turmoil. The Vietnamese forces quickly captured Phnom Penh and installed a new government under the People's Revolutionary Council headed by Heng Samrin, but they found stiff resistance in the countryside. Eventually, the Khmer Rouge was forced to retreat to the hilly areas on the Thai frontier, taking along several hundred thousand people. Thousands more fled across the border into Thailand, where they eventually were placed in camps. Refugee camps in Thailand continue to this day to define the only Cambodian world known to tens of thousands of Khmers.

Buddhism in Cambodia After 1979

In the wake of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, a new government under Heng Samrin was set up in Phnom Penh. The country was given a new name: the People's Republic of Kampuchea - a name that was to be replaced in 1989 by another name, the State of Cambodia. By 1980 the Heng Samrin government was beginning to establish some semblance of a new order. The PRK based its moral authority primarily on the fact that it had restored order to the country following the destruction that the "murderous Pol Pot clique" had inflicted upon the Khmer people. The PRK has sought to distance itself from the Khmer Rouge regime by making national monuments out of the mass graves and, especially, the former Khmer Rouge prison at Tuol Sleng, where thousands were tortured and executed. The government also instituted a national holiday on 7 January to mark the "liberation" of the country from the Pol Pot regime.

Not being the Khmer Rouge, however, provides only a negative legitimacy. Indeed, the leadership of the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea, the communist party that dominates the PRK, finds itself in a quandary: if it seeks to implement policies shaped by communist ideology, it could alienate the populace, which associates such policies with the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, the party had at the outset very few cadres and no real base among the populace. Given long enough, the PRPK might perhaps create a party infrastructure that will be able to establish a new form of legitimacy. In the interim, however, it has had to recruit many former officials of the Sihanouk and even the Lon Nol regimes who had managed to survive the Khmer Rouge period. The PRK also faces a major problem by its having been put into power by the Vietnamese; Khmer district of the Vietnamese runs very deep. Although the PRK eschews the perverted nationalism of Pol Pot, it still must demonstrate that it embodies the will of the Khmer nation. This it can only do by looking to Khmer tradition.

The PRK has not been able to reclaim the monarchical tradition as part of its own legacy. Although the Grand Palace has been accorded a prominent place among the tourist attractions of Phnom Penh, the face that its last inhabitant, Prince Sihanouk, has associated himself with the opposition Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea has prevented the PRK from reinterpreting the monarchy for its own purpose. Because the monarchy still holds positive significance for many Khmers, it is likely that the leaders of the government in Phnom Penh will eventually be party to some agreement that secures a major role for Prince Sihanouk in a future government.

It is noteworthy that one of the first acts of the Heng Samrin government after it came to power was to permit the restoration of Buddhism. Early in 1979 a delegation of Theravadin monks from Vietnam went to Cambodia to reordain some of the monks who had been forced to leave the order during the Khmer Rouge period. The government also permitted some new ordinations of both monks and novices, encouraged the restoration of temples, and even allowed a factory manufacturing Buddha images to open. By 1980, festivals involving monks were once again being held. By 1981, according to a report by Michael Richardson, 500 monks had returned to the Sangha and about 1,500 novices had been ordained. An official report in 1982 put the figures at 2,311 monks, of whom 800 were former monks.

In its early stages of consolidating power, the new PRK government convened a national conference of monks in Siem Reap to consider the role of Buddhism in the development of the country. The National Salvation Front, set up to represent interests of groups other than the party, included the Sangha. According to Kiernan, a student of Cambodian politics, in 1980 three monks were members of its 30-member Central Committee.

In 1980 it seemed as though the Heng Samrin government, although led by members of a communist party, might be moving toward drawing upon the Buddhist tradition to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of the Khmer people. However, by 1981 the PRK government had begun to make it difficult for Buddhism to be restored in the form in which it had existed prior to 1970. The government began to restrict ordinations, permitting only those over 50 years of age to enter the Sangha. Although a few younger men were allowed to be ordained, especially if they followed the traditional custom of doing so to "make merit" for a parent at the time of the parent's funeral, the number of monks was kept quite small. In 1985, correspondent Jim Laurie was told that there were about 8,000 monks in the country, while in 1989 Ros Chhnum, general secretary of the Council of the United Front for the Construction and Defense of the Kampuchean Fatherland, a front organization composed of representatives of nonparty sectors of Khmer society, reported to the council that there were 6,500 monks. In other words, the total number following the discipline of the Sangha under the PRK was kept at less than 10 percent of the number in pre-Khmer Rouge times.

Kiernan, in Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981, reports that in 1982 the government justified restricting ordinations because "it would ...seem that the country is not yet productive enough to support large numbers of monks living from alms donated by the population." The more restrictive policy toward Buddhism may have reflected an effort to ensure that the Sangha did not emerge as an institution independent of the state, a role that it played in the past. Buddhism was also viewed in Marxist terms as having a potential for offering people "unhealthy beliefs." According to Radio Phnom Penh, at a second congress of monks held in July 1984 the party leadership imposed a resolution that included the admonition to "completely discard unhealthy beliefs."

Although the government imposed strict restrictions on the Sangha, it permitted the restoration of wats. By 1989, according to official figures, there were 2,400 temple-monasteries in the country, or about two-thirds of that which had existed prior to 1970. I personally saw many restored wats in and around Phnom Penh when I visited the city in early 1988 and again in 1989. I also saw many new images of the Buddha. The reconstruction of religious structures and the casting of new images, although permitted by the government, has not, at least until very recently, involved any expenditure of government monies.

In mid-1988 the PRK made an abrupt change in its policy toward Buddhism. This change appears to have been motivated primarily by the leadership's recognition that its political future could well depend on developing broader popular support. According to Murray Hiebert, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review in January 1989, Hun Sen apologized to audiences around the country for the "government's `mistakes' towards religion." Restrictions on ordinations of men under the age of 50 were removed. The consequences of the change were evident when I was in Cambodia in May 1989. Whereas the previous year I had seen very few monks, and only one under 50, this time I saw more monks, especially in the countryside, and many of those I saw were young. The government also removed a detested tax on temple-monasteries and has even contributed monies for the construction of some shrines.

Hun Sen and other leaders have become conspicuous for their public piety. In a speech in Kampot, Hun Sen pointed with pride to the fact that Heng Samrin, the general secretary of the party, and Chea Sim, the chairman of the National Assembly, had been members of the Sangha. Hun Sen told the reporter Susan Downie that he himself has "good memories" of living in a wat as a boy in Phnom Penh. In April 1989 Radio Phnom Penh reported that Hun Sen, Heng Samrin, and other officials attended a ceremony at which a relic of the Buddha was enshrined at a temple in front of the Phnom Penh railway station. The most important public religious acts involving government officials have been those held at the recently constructed shrines to those killed by the Khmer Rouge. These shrines - such as the ones at the Tuol Sleng extermination camp in Phnom Penh and at Chhoeung Ek on the edge of the city - are in the form of a traditional Buddhist funerary structure, symbolizing both Mt. Meru and the impermanence of life. The rites held at these shrines are performed by monks who are invited by the government to chant appropriate texts.

Although these shrines, and the rites held at them, express a hope that the Khmer people may no longer suffer as they did in the "dark age" of the 1970s, the future of Cambodia still remains very much in doubt. The failure to reach a settlement that would ensure that the Khmer Rouge could not return to power, the weakness of the noncommunist resistance, and the vulnerability of the Phnom Penh government following the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and reduced support from the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries all increase significantly the possibility that the Khmer Rouge could once again take power. The refusal of the United States and other governments to enter into any form of negotiations with the Phnom Penh government makes this possibility even more likely. Khmers could once again be forced to live in an order in which Buddhism, so long central to their identity, would have no place.


1 According to those who have visited Cambodia since the collapse of the Paris conference and the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, the government has proscribed the ordination of men who have not yet served three years of military service. The concern appears to be to prevent the Sangha from being used as a refuge by those seeking to escape military service at a time when the country faces a serious crisis. (It should be noted that in Thailand, young men cannot be ordained until they have either served in the military or have been exempted by virtue of not having been chosen in the annual lottery.)


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