By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepthNewsFeature
SIEM REAP (IDN) – Somnieng Hoeurn, deputy abbot of Wat Damnak, one of the largest Buddhist temples in this capital city of Siem Reap Province in northwestern Cambodia, and a popular resort town as the gateway to Angkor region, laments that the Khmer Rouge completely destroyed Buddhism in Cambodia. He adds with a grin, “We not only have to build temples but also do a lot of mind building.”
He believes that both the government and the monastic system need each other to help Cambodia – one of the world’s poorest countries – progress. “A Buddhist temple must respond to 21st century demands,” he says.
His life story is as unique as his attempts to rebuild Cambodian Buddhism in which the temple is an integral part of community development.
Somnieng was born in 1980 just after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown. He was one of five siblings in a very poor family where domestic violence was the norm. Unable to feed him, his mother abandoned him at three. He was brought up by a neighbour for the next 10 years.
He did not even have the five dollars needed to sit for his high school exam. But, determined to get an education, he became a monk at 15, and at 20 he was appointed a leader of the temple. He also went on to complete high school.
“I was too young and I did not know how to run a temple, but one thing I knew was that I could learn from my people,” he tells IDN. In 2002, he went to Phnom Penh and persuaded a local NGO, the Salvation Centre of Cambodia, to allow him to open a branch in Siem Reap to treat HIV/AIDS patients.
In 2005, he set up the NGO Life and Hope Association (LHA), with funding from movie star Jackie Chan. LHA is committed to breaking the cycle of poverty in Cambodia.
Guided by Buddhist philosophy and Somnieng’s own experiences, LHA “believes that at the root of all suffering is ignorance, and loving care and a good education provide a way out of poverty”.
A new chapter was written in Somnieng’s life story in 2005 when an American doctor visited Cambodia and wanted an English speaking monk to teach him basic Buddhism. Somnieng took up the challenge.
“I taught him the noble eight fold path for one week and after he went back he e-mailed me, inviting me to visit America,” recalls Somnieng. During this trip he was introduced to the president of St Ambrose University who offered him a scholarship to study there. Upon his return to Cambodia he applied for a student visa.
“America is not a place where I wanted to live,” Somnieng says. “During those three years, I came back at least once a year. I was studying during day time and running LHA from America at night time.”
He not only obtained a BA in Management from St Ambrose University, but last year, studying on another scholarship at Harvard University, he obtained an MA in Public Administration.
The 34-year-old monk argues that a temple is a public institution and needs to be managed like one. “I wanted to understand and make sure that I’m running a public organisation, and make sure we’re installing the right values and bringing new values to society,” he says explaining why he chose to study Public Administration.
LHA has six core programmes that include an orphanage for 43 most vulnerable children, community projects where 160 poor families are supplied with rice throughout the year to enable their children to get an education, sewing training for impoverished young women, English language classes and a programme for advancing girls’ education.
Sen Sith, who comes from a poor village family, is a graduate of the English language programme. He studied English at the temple for two years and now teaches the subject to children at his village school.
“I knew English is a popular language around the world and I studied it to open up opportunities for myself. I may work as a tour guide later,” he says.
Sok Rem, a young monk at Wat Damnak who coordinates the English language school, says they charge 11 dollars from each student for a four-month course in reading, writing and speaking. “For the very poor, if they get certification from the village chief, we allow them to learn for free,” he says.
“We provide a lot of classes related to the use of English in business, restaurants and tourism, so that they can work in these sectors,” explains Sok, who says the one-hour English classes offered in schools are not enough to prepare people in these fields. English speech classes are usually run by foreign volunteer teachers.
Siem Reap is only six kilometers from the world famous Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat, which attracts millions of visitors each year. The hotel industry in the city has mushroomed in the last decade and is still expanding.
The sewing programme has trained some 213 girls from poor families. They are between the ages of 18 and 34 and many were working in brick factories or construction sites earlier. “They have no education and no hope. We are giving them skills,” says Somnieng.
“We provide them 10 months training that includes free food and accommodation,” explained Nat Sakoan, manager of the sewing school. “Some students apply to work here. They don’t want to go home. When we get orders from other countries and companies, we give them work and pay a salary.”
LHA get support from donors in Australia, US and other countries. Somnieng often visits these countries to drum up support. He is also planning to set up a development oriented community radio station in the near future to take development education with a Buddhist perspective into homes.
Argues Somnieng, “People don’t just look and say the temple is there. They ask how we can help them survive. People are under a lot of pressure economically, technologically and politically, and if religion is unable to facilitate them, religion will be left behind.”
*Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 13, 2014]
The writer’s previous IDN articles:
Top left photo: Sewing class