A Discussion with Venerable Hoeurn Somnieng, Executive Director of Life and Hope Association
October 21, 2010
Background: This conversation between Venerable Hoeurn Somnieng and WFDD researchers Ethan Carroll and Nathaniel Adams took place at Wat Damnak in Siem Reap. Venerable Somnieng discusses the centrality of education and the role of the temple in inspiring meaningful social and political change, as well as the importance of vocational training for vulnerable women. He explains how the leadership at Wat Damnak has made the temple a more welcoming space for women, and shares his desire that organizations working in counter-trafficking address trafficked persons' emotional and spiritual needs.
Could you tell us about how Life and Hope Association (LHA) began in Wat Damnak?
Before I started LHA I was the first monk to work directly with HIV/AIDs issues, back in 2003. At that time I was a high school student. I got some training about HIV/AIDS and how to take care of people. I was the provincial monk corps trainer in HIV/AIDS and preventative education programs, so I had been to many training programs. When I finished high school, I went to Phnom Penh to ask the provincial director at Salvation Centre Cambodia (SCC) to let me have a branch of SCC at Siem Reap. He was not really open to the idea because of the financial situation of SCC itself, and because he didn't know me. Finally, he agreed, and I began a branch of SCC in Siem Reap. I ran it from 2003 to 2005; as the first monk and the first group to get involved in HIV issues here, it wasn't easy. There was cultural, political, and religious pressure; however, I did my best. I gained some experience and some more knowledge, and I gained more confidence. I became well-known as “Venerable AIDS” in Siem Reap.
One day Jackie Chan visited Siem Reap, and he visited SCC. With his presence came a lot of attention from the government—from the national, provincial, and local levels. He was so supportive of the program, and he funded SCC for another two years through his visit and through the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador program. As we got enough funds, I thought “SCC is becoming stronger and stronger.' I also had my responsibilities at this temple as the second head monk. I had lost some on-the-ground relationships with my monks and my people because I was not here. I could talk to people at certain times throughout the day, but then at night I went to my University until nine, then I'd come back. I was a leader at the temple, I was a student by night, and I was a social leader at SCC , so it was not easy. Then I thought: If I work in my temple I would have more time. If I stay in the temple I can see everything. I handed SCC to other people I worked with and I started LHA in 2005.
LHA was much, much easier to start. Through two years of training programs and working with SCC I gained a lot of knowledge and experience. So when I started LHA I had some knowledge and I had a lot of connections and relationships and a better understanding of social work.
How did you identify a need for Life and Hope Association's first program, Food for Education?
We see the causes, we see the problems, we see the issues—that's how Food for Education started. I remember that every morning I saw several groups of children who walked around with plastic bags, looking for and picking up plastic and empty bottles and cans which they would sell. I knew that I wanted to work with the children, so I asked them ‘Why are you doing this, where are you from and do you want to go to school?' The children said they did want to go to school, but their economic situation had forced them to work. I asked them, if they could get something to eat would they want to go to school? And they said yes.
The simple idea behind Food for Education is that when given food, children stop begging and start going to school. It is that simple. As Food for Education developed, we expanded to include a few other income-generating activities, providing uniforms and education materials, and organizing community meetings and programs. Now we have more than 400 children in our programs and we are working with six villages in this area. Some might think that Food for Education is a very small project; but we spend very little and it has a significant positive effect.
Do you see poverty and food insecurity as being related to child trafficking?
Definitely, yes. Poverty, the lack of food and awareness, and the lack of not just education, but systematic education are all interrelated with child trafficking.
Would you say that you are trying to approach development challenges in a systematic way that stresses education and empowerment, rather than smaller issues?
Five years ago, LHA started with a good heart. Even though I didn't have much education, we worked at everything with a good heart. But if we have a good heart plus a good system, we will see a great organization. This is how we change in a more systematic way. In everything we do, we have to be open and to empower people. Even at our orphanage, the children have chores and a network, which they do themselves; they have representatives, they have meetings and they talk to us, and I talk to them. This is how we empower people.
Through pilot surveys with rural monks in Sre Ambel and Kampong Thom, we have found that the pagoda is often considered more of a space for boys and men than for girls and women. Would you say that that is different here with the various programs you run?
I don't want to say that all temples should have more girls in them, because it could create a lot of problems. However, if they have a good system in the temple, it could make a big change. I am not saying this is the best temple, but we lead this temple with great confidence. You will see in the general environment and in the management of the temple, we have a good system. Our confidence in our system and our temple leadership was why we were able to create the sewing school and the PAGE project, the high school scholarship program for girls from grade 10 to grade 12. We believe in education, particularly in education for girls. Changing one girl will change forever the history of the family. When we created PAGE, we believed of course that high school and university education for girls would be the best, but that is not necessarily always possible. That's why we also started the Sewing Training Center. A lot of girls have not even been to primary school, so giving them skills is giving them real power. They are poor, but we give them power, we give them energy, we give them education, we give them skills with which they can make money, and we empower them. Skills make money and money empowers them. When they are empowered they can protect themselves, they can become better people, and they grow up like blooming flowers. Changing one girl changes a whole family; changing the whole family changes the community and the next generation.
It's the same thing with PAGE. We provide PAGE opportunities because we see that all temples are only providing opportunities for boys. Boys alone cannot make a better society. In order to have a balanced society we have to have equal opportunity; in order to have equal opportunity, we as a temple have the responsibility to be a part of that. The government cannot do it alone. We all—the NGOs, the temples, the churches, everywhere—should focus our direction to giving more space to girls.
At first people asked why we put LHA's sewing school in the temple grounds. They said that the girls could attract a lot of monks or cause something to go wrong with the monks. In response, I let them know that as long as Venerable Chhun Chhoeurn and I are the leaders of the temple, we take full responsibility for the temple and the programs we are doing. As long as we are alive and stay in this temple, we will take it as our own responsibility and give a guarantee to the people, to the public, to the temple, and to the future of the temple as well—the next generation. We created the sewing school in the temple, and for three years so far we've had nothing go wrong with the temple itself. We have made sure to communicate our leadership. Both the girls and the monks get clear expectations from us. Our girls are coming here for work. Our monks are coming here for work. We want to see you all become successful citizens, both girls and monks and boys.
It seems that boys can come to the temple as pagoda boys or they can come to access education and stay at the temple during the weekends. In a community with a pagoda that doesn't have a program like PAGE, where do the girls go?
Most of them just come to the nunnery or they stay with their grandmas and grandpas. But those places are available for very, very few girls. Wat Damnak has a nunnery where at least 20 girls can stay and go to school at the same time. Without that project they wouldn't be able to stay at the pagoda. I don't think there are any other options for the girls.
Who supervises the girls in the PAGE program?
There are so many poor girls in this country, so we can't just take any girls; we have to select the best and the most dedicated and most committed to education. Those girls don't need much direction or advice, so we give them space and opportunity and provide full support through scholarships. They go to school by themselves and have house supervisors who act as the big sister. The PAGE big sisters have graduated from high school and are often attending university. We don't want the girls to be controlled. We want to empower them. We want them to be responsible. We want them to have independence, and they have much more confidence with people their own age.
In PAGE we have two teams: the Education Team and the Environmental and Hygiene Team. Each team gives the other assistance, and each has one team leader and one assistant team leader. These two teams check in on each other: at home, the Environment and Hygiene Team are the boss and they take care of everything and make sure you do their job at home; for Education, even at home or at school it's up to that team: make sure you work, make sure you study, make sure you read at home, at school, inside or outside of PAGE. We can see that they are working together, and we are empowering them and making them more responsible. The team leaders have one-year terms. They have elections, so they choose a new leader every year. It's empowerment. They learn to take action and responsibility.
Are there unique development challenges in a tourist city like Siem Riep with such an influx of money and so many people coming and going?
Yes, definitely. There are positives and negatives. The money itself is good, but it can also be dangerous. Money is nothing: it's just pieces of paper that we assume, officially, represents a value. That value can make a good change and a better world, but at the same time it can kill all of us. With the visitors, the people, the opportunity this creates here, it's the same thing. It depends on how you choose and whether the system provides a guarantee of both economic justice and social justice.
Does Life and Hope Association work in rehabilitation for women and girls who have been trafficked?
Our sewing school works with the girls at the brick-making factory. We took them from the brick-making factory and put them at the vocational training school. After 10 months in the program they had changed. They can make a lot more money and in a much easier way. I remember that the first time those girls made money was for monk bags. Tourists came here and bought the bags, and the girls were so excited the first time they made $3 from the bag. This was the first time in their life they had made something with their name on it, and someone had bought it. They were so proud and they felt so great about the product of their hands. They can make money using their skills and their brains, more than just using physical labor.
What do you think of groups that are doing raids and taking women and girls out of brothels or bonded labor and putting them in vocational training facilities?
For LHA and colleagues at other Buddhist organizations, I can say that we don't really see the difference between what we are doing and what other religious groups are doing. We just hope they make sure that when they go those places and take them out of the problem, they think about how to heal them spiritually. Giving skills is just one part of someone's future plans. How to heal them physically and mentally, that is something we can look into in more depth to see that we do the same things and provide the same opportunities. The best way to heal people is through their own culture and values of religion, faith, and belief.
This is something where, if you go to our program and you see our girls and they have very moral conduct and behavior, it is because they are in their own culture and they are in a temple. They study about how to be good citizens, how to be good people, to be good children. When some girls go back home from our sewing center even their parents say, ‘This is not my girl. The girl I raised in the past was just a little girl. But come here for 10 months and when she goes back she is an adult and a well-educated girl, and she acts in a way we've never seen before.' This is not just skills, but a transformation of her heart, her behavior, and her values. I think this is something different.
Do you think there are different views in Cambodian society about what the role of a monk should be? Are some people critical of monks who are more active?
Yes, there are two parts to this: One is from the people, including the monks themselves. For example, I was the first monk in HIV issues, and I was heavily criticized by some people, even by some HIV patients themselves. They asked: ‘Why is a monk is doing all of this?' ‘Why do you come to my house and talk about HIV/AIDS?' If you want to help people, you cannot just give direct answers to all those people; many times we have people who express their own feelings, their own emotions and ideas through their own education and understanding. Maybe you need a little more compassion to talk with them nicely and give them a real understanding of what you're doing and why.
In Cambodian culture the temples have always functioned as the community center. The temple was the education center, the temple was the arts center, the temple was the social welfare center, food center, meeting center; even for building something, everything would come from the temple. But this is the past history of the temple. When we talk about something like human trafficking and we talk about the sex trade, when we talk about HIV, then people say, ‘These are the modern issues and the temples and the monks should not be part of this.' But through understanding and through the law and providing opportunities, we educate them. Even five years ago in Wat Damnak, some people were a little worried about what we were doing because they didn't understand. Now, they've gotten to know what we're doing. They are big supporters of the program now.
Given the history of the temple, it's always been a place that has been the first place of change; not just social change, but also political change. The temple is the place for the beginning of change. Every change in the country comes from the temple most of the time.
Is that something that people in political places would be uncomfortable with your saying?
Yes. They don't understand what freedom is and what are the functions and the responsibilities of the temple. I say this because I am working and fighting for my own freedom and the freedom of my people. This is something that is affecting this temple right now. They say that the monks at this temple, the leadership of this temple, are too strong and the government is a bit scared of the temple.
For example: we were planning to have a Buddhist College in this temple, scheduled to open in May of this year. One guy stood up as a representative of government and said ‘No' because they cannot control this temple. They said ‘This temple is led by western ideas and leadership and they cannot control it.' He sent his petition to Phnom Penh to the Ministry of Cult and Religion and they didn't give permission to this temple to have a University.
Even though this is a simple temple they cannot control it. When we have more education and educated people in this temple, how can they control it? Education is freedom; education is power. If you want to control people don't give them education. But if you offer education, you give people power automatically. I don't want my students to just sit in the classroom. I want them to have freedom of speech, of action, and I want them to have critical thinking skills. That's why the school has been delayed and delayed, but in these last few weeks we've just gotten official approval.
We have criticized them so much because they have been so unethical. For example, when the monks from the rural areas and from the district level come to Siem Reap, the Provincial Department of Religion and Cult charges a fee of $50, $100, or $120 to place them in a temple in Siem Reap. When they come here, and we ask the monks if they paid money and they say yes: we reject them. All other temples take the monks. They let themselves be controlled. This is not that kind of space. We don't allow anyone to take our power. In some temples, the monks say ‘You're a monk, you should have compassion.' Of course, but with wisdom! Not just blind compassion, but compassion with wisdom. If you can do that, giving a good example, you can share your responsibilities to the people as a monk and make a big change. Not just in your temple, but also in your community and in Cambodia.
We need knowledge and compassion with character. I love Gandhi's idea: knowledge without character is a sin. No matter whom you are, a man or a monk, knowledge without character is a sin, socially or religiously.
It seems like you have a very good ethical framework, especially with regard to women's rights. How do you encourage other pagodas to act on this same framework? Do you think this is something that may happen with increased education? Will graduates of LHA's programs become the next monks doing the same kinds of things you are doing?
In order to understand the current situation, the trend of the world, you have to educate yourself. You have to learn and to see what is going on in the world and what its needs are, and how to prepare the next generation to be a citizen of the world. The older generation, the head monks, the older monks, when we talk with them they don't understand that. When they don't understand that, they reject ideas and they don't work with us. Based on my personal experience and the experience of others in the area we've built a network called the Monk's Network. We have 10 young monks in the community between 25 and 28 years old. I'm hoping they're the future leaders of temples. Soon the generation of old monks will move on. We believe in education and the young generation, and those people will become the leaders of the temples.
I believe the Buddhist College will play a role in this transformation. The College will not only be a theoretical university; it has to be a socially engaged Buddhist University. I can see that there are two places where we can equip the younger generation to be socially engaged students. One in is in Wat Damnak, where we have the Center for Khmer Studies and its international research libraries; this will be the research center. Then we will use LHA as the practical center. They will study Buddhism and do research, and they will create their own community projects several times per year. When they graduate from this school they may give up the monkhood, but they'll still get the idea of what it means to be a socially responsible citizen. If these people go back to their community after earning their degree they will definitely become leaders in their communities.
Even if they take off the robes?
Yes, even if they take off the robes, though some of them will stay. So when they go back they'll become the leader of the temple. Becoming the leader of the temple they'll become an agent of change in their community. The leaders of the temples with Bachelor's degrees from here, maybe they'll become the leader of the governing district of the temple or even the head of the district. This is how we can change. We cannot start from the top, so we'll start from the bottom, and we'll spread our seeds everywhere. I believe that we can really change the country, but we have to work on education if we want to make a big change in the next 15 to 20 years. It's difficult, but I never give up and I'm never negative about the future. I'm hopeful. Talking to younger people such as my students or fellow monks, they know who I am and they believe in what I'm doing. A lot of people ask for permission to make changes; I don't think that is really a good change. You create your own change and make yourself into the agent of change. You create your own opportunity and then you make a change. I don't believe that everyone will do that, but at least we give them an example and the hope of what they can do.