A Discussion with Heng Monychenda, Director, Buddhism for Development

With: Heng Monychenda Berkley Center Profile

November 11, 2009

Background: This discussion took place as part of preparations for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held December 14-15, 2009 in Phnom Penh. The interview was conducted by telephone between Heng Monychenda and Michael Bodakowski. Heng Monychenda, director of Buddhism for Development, works to bridge the teachings of engaged Buddhism with development, contributing his personal understanding of the Cambodian context, the training he received at Harvard University, and his role as a monk. In this interview he reflects on the work of his organization, on education, HIV/AIDS, and human rights especially. More broadly, he discusses Cambodia's challenges in tracing its unique development path and addressing the legacy of the past, especially in the area of trust and human rights.

What has been your journey to your present position, your personal experience, and how you were inspired to do the work you do?

One of my main inspirations is that I became a monk in 1980, working along the Cambodia/Thai border. Besides that, in 1984 I had the chance to travel around the world, including Japan, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and the USA. When I travel abroad I always speak with Cambodians residing in those countries. One thing I heard from Cambodians living in Japan, for instance, is that in the future Cambodia should follow the model of the Japanese people, for though Japan endured a war and other hardships, they were able to improve their condition into one of the world’s top economies. When I visited Europe, specifically Switzerland, the Cambodians living there told me that Switzerland is very wonderful, and that they have a national law making committee in which they decide together what is best for the country. Cambodia should follow this model they said, to have just laws and create self-sufficiency. In France, the Cambodians there said that France is helping the development of Cambodia, and it cannot abandon its protectorate. Lastly in the USA, people said, “you see how the USA is big and powerful?”…and so on and so on…

I heard various approaches reflecting about the development of a country—it made me think about how to apply these ideas to Cambodia. Everyone was saying; use my model of development, use mine! But I then thought, what should be the development model for Cambodia? It was this experience that inspired me to really look at Cambodia, and we found out that there is a long-standing indigenous culture, including Hinduism and the great culture of Jayavarman VII. If we set up our indigenous people and culture as a base, then we can see whether the outside models that I witnessed in my travels can bring benefits for Cambodia. It would be an indicator of development, rather than just imposing another development model on the country. In 1985/1986 we started a research center in the Cambodian refugee camps, on the concepts of Buddhism that could help reconcile and reconstruct Cambodian society.

This is where I developed my own idea of how we can use socially engaged Buddhism for the development of Cambodia. In some ways there is too much external influence for Cambodia to move towards the concepts of development that are being applied in other countries. That is the primary reason that I became interested in how socially engaged Buddhism can be a guide for development.

So what was most influential: your trips abroad shaping your thoughts on development or your direct observations when you returned to Cambodia? Do you see answers for Cambodia in indigenous practice, or is it really a combination of the two?

The main point I want to emphasize here is that, if we completely follow development concepts from the outside, what will Cambodia look like in the future?

To talk a little about the history of Cambodia, what do you see as the most visible legacy of the Khmer Rouge on society today, and in what ways has that affected the work that you do?

One of the man impacts is the disintegration of Cambodia's society. I use the word disintegration because in speaking in sociological terms, we know that each society needs to have institutions, for example we need to have political institutions, economic, education, religion, and family institutions, and it seems that the Khmer Rouge was able to completely disintegrate this structure. The family was not able to voice their concerns to the government because the Khmer Rouge would not allow anyone to say anything about the party.

The economic situation was miserable for the average Cambodia. We had no market, no money, and little food. There was no religion; no Christianity, no Buddhism, and no Islam. We even had to pray in silence. Furthermore, there was no education, and that is why we don’t talk at all about the Khmer Rouge. People could not connect with each other.

One of the concepts of Buddhism is to connect. In Buddhism we have a concept which in Pali language is called Khandha. Khandha means interdimension. What this means is that each one needs to depend on each other. This is why all activities need to link to each other. I don’t really believe in solo projects, but rather I believe in integrated projects. In this way we can link people to one another; we can link one institution to another.

Building on the context you have just described, can you give us a brief overview of the work that Buddhism for Development does, and why you focus on those specific areas of work within the Cambodia context?

Let’s talk about one case at a time.

First, we have a project called Scholarships for Children which allows children to go to school. However, at the same time we have found that given the poor and corrupt education system in Cambodia, children may not always receive the necessary education, and may turn to violence, drugs, etc. We thus try to integrate moral values into our program. At the same time, we found that just going to school, even with instruction in moral values, is not enough. Parents need to be aware of their children and improve their economic situation so that they are not dependent on the scholarship for very long, and are able to escape poverty. We developed income generating activities for the parents to help break the poverty cycle.

At the same time we are teaching children about democracy; encouraging them to speak more, to talk with their parents about what is meant by democracy and human rights. This way, they can gain for themselves what was lost during the Khmer Rouge.

This kind of activity will help to apply a holistic developmental approach and an integration of the concepts of Buddhism.

I have also read that you do a lot of conflict resolution work at the community level. Can you speak about those programs?

This is a very important program for us. It started in 1998 when thousands of foreigners were coming to Cambodia, both UNTAC and those that came in 1993 for the elections. The Khmer Rouge was trying to reintegrate into society. They did not want to leave, so they settled along the border. Although people were integrated, it was physical integration, not emotional. People had already chosen what group they belonged too. Just as the Cambodians know who are Vietnamese by their appearance, they also knew who the Khmer Rouge were. They did not forget what these people had done to them. It is not a healthy situation because the former Khmer Rouge realizes they are not integrated into society and carry weapons to protect themselves from harm.

It was because of these circumstances that we started a conflict resolution program: the Peace and Development Volunteer Program (PDV). PDV volunteers are trained in conflict resolution, taking into account indigenous cultures and the concepts of Buddhism to help solve these problems. We started this program in 1999 and it still exists in communities today, even after our official work has finished. It is helping people to talk to each other rather than go to the corrective court that usually ends up costing a lot of money and is not always effective.

Do the government courts have the capacity to deal with these issues, or are they still lacking capacity? Is Buddhism for Development filling this deficiency gap?

The courts in Cambodia are weak, not because of knowledge necessarily, but because of corruption. The individual with the most money will win the case. There is clear corruption. The government is trying to eliminate corruption, but there is still a long road ahead.

You have both been ordained as a monk, and also studied public administration at Harvard University. How have both of these different experiences influenced your work?

When talking about Buddhism, it is not only spiritual development, but also how we organize Buddhist teachings to reach the community. This is why I was interested in public administration at Harvard. We have to think about Buddhism as an entity, as another part of the government. In Cambodia we used to say that the domain of religion and a domain of government have to go together like the two wheels of a chariot. If one wheel is not working effectively, the chariot can go in the wrong direction or simply stand still.

I see public administration every day in my faith. We also have a kind of public administration in Buddhism. It began 2,500 years ago, and even today socially engaged Buddhism can still work in society and with the government to improve management. It is important to note as well that there is no conflict between church and state here. Buddhism complements public administration to create a whole functioning system.

Buddhism for Development has recently turned 20 years old. What are the main lessons you have learned since starting the organization?

I have learned that socially engaged Buddhism is very good in helping Cambodian society on physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development. Socially Engaged Buddhism tells Buddhist institutions to engage people to improve their quality of life. We are not in two different worlds, but rather one single world. Spiritual and economic development should not be separated into two separate realms. In Buddhism, one is not more important than the other. We have a saying, “Nama-rupa,” which means that mind and matter have to go together. Mind affects matter and matter affects the mind. It is the teaching of the Buddha that economic development and spiritual development need to be done alongside each other. However sometimes, especially in Cambodia, it seems that economic development takes priority.

A main challenge is that some people already believe that Buddhist monks should live only in the Pagoda and pray eight to 10 hours a day, rather than involve themselves in daily life.

In 1995 I was the first monk to start to talk about HIV/AIDS. I spoke through TV in Battambang province. I spoke on issues of awareness. A lot of people complained and scolded me, saying that I cannot be a monk and talk about HIV/AIDS. It is taboo to talk about this topic, especially as a monk. Nonetheless, I still kept trying to teach about HIV/AIDS though my sermons and teachings. After one or two years I was no longer the only one taking up these issues, and people adopted the idea of Buddhist monks incorporating HIV/AIDS issues into the religious ministry. Now all across Cambodia Buddhist monks are working more on HIV/AIDS. This was one of my greatest challenges.

Other issues we tried to introduce in the name of Buddhism are human rights and democracy. Human rights and democracy are found everywhere in Buddhism. The challenge is that people have been living their religion for centuries and centuries, but they do not understand all the concepts of their religion. We have to convey the Buddhist translations in an easily understandable manner so that Cambodians will start to see the relevance of Buddhism to development.

What do you see as the role of non-governmental organizations in the continued development of Cambodia? Does religion play a growing part?

NGOs can be looked at in two ways—sometimes an NGO is a non-governmental organization, but sometimes it becomes an AGO, an anti-governmental organization. You know that sometimes people try to manipulate things to obtain personal goals. Nonetheless, the role of the NGO must be to enlarge and diversify civil society.

Do we want a civil society or do we want a military society? Military does not only mean weapons. It also means violations, autocracy, and human rights abuses. I think the role of NGOs has to focus on the role of civil society in Cambodia.

The role of religion is even more important than before. We learn from globalization, with one click you can reach the whole world, but this can also create a lot of conflict. People use blogs, facebook, etc., and I think this will create a lot of tension in the future.

All religion, not only Buddhism, has a role to play. Interreligious discussions have taken place in Cambodia for a number of years. We are trying to make sure that Cambodia does not experience religious conflict. To this end, we talk among Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, and have been very effective on how showing what is needed to work together, especially on issues of social justice, sharing what the concept means in each religion. Last year we organized an exhibition on role of religion in Cambodia to find the common values of religions.

In sum, religion in general, not only Buddhism, can help Cambodia by teaching its followers about peace and development. The fundamental tenet of religions is to coexist peacefully and to promote peace and development. Only development is not sufficient; it will not necessarily lead to peace. We need to work to create both peace and development.

Where do you see Cambodia in the next 20 years? How do you see Buddhism for Development evolving with this changing context?

Cambodia in the next 20 years is like a slogan to us. We say that 20 years has already passed and we are looking forwards to another.

I think that many problems still exist in Cambodia. The remaining problems started from the war in 1970 with involvement by the U.S., the occupation by Vietnam, the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, and the socialist state in Cambodia.

The remaining problem in Cambodia is human rights violations. This problem will continue to exist for a while. We need more programs on human rights and conflict resolution. This was the main issue in 1970, and now we see ourselves in 2010, and it is still the main issue. It has been over 40 years with little change!

Poverty is also a persistent problem. Poverty will probably continue to increase due to the uncertainty of economic development and our lack of natural resources. Poverty will still be a main problem and it needs to be tackled. Our strategy for poverty reduction will include 1) economic development, especially in rural areas, 2) Human Rights, 3) Rule of law, i.e. rule by law rather than rule by men 4) Education, which is closely related to economic development and rule of law, and 5) HIV/AIDS, a problem made more severe by the effects of globalization.

Last year I also wrote an article on Cambodian rule of law, saying that if we have another free election, the government should bring rule of law onto the agenda. Rule of law includes democracy, accountability, and governance.

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