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A Discussion with Venerable Loun Sovath

November 20, 2011

Background: This conversation between Venerable Loun Sovath and WFDD research fellows Nathaniel Adams and Laura Hodges took place in Phnom Penh on November 20, 2011. In it Venerable Sovath discusses his personal history and the events that inspired him to become a human rights advocate. He talks about the importance of harnessing technology and the negative response that the government and Sangha authorities have had to his activities. He shares his vision of broad-based and equitable development in Cambodia that respects both people and nature and follows Buddhist ideals.

Why did you first decide to become a monk?

I am originally from Chi Kraeng Commune in Siem Reap Province. My parents were farmers and the children of farmers usually don’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education. In order to get an education, I had to become a monk. However, the situation of the country at the time also played a role in my decision to become a monk.

At that time, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there was a conflict between different factions in the country and many battles were being fought. I had ten siblings, six brothers and four sisters, and all of them were forced to join military groups. Some were taken into local militias led by Vietnam, others into ones led by Prince Sihanouk. Two of my brothers and one of my sisters were killed in the conflict. Another brother had both of his legs broken. At the time I was young, just ten years old, but I was big for my age. I looked much older than I was, so they tried to force me into the military as well. There was a lot of pressure for me to join the local militias and because my family had a lack of food at home, my father decided to bring me to the pagoda so I could enter the monkhood.

In this period the country was known as the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea and there was a law banning all men under the age of 50 from being ordained as monks. I had to violate this law in order to become a monk at my young age. The local authorities and the temple leaders were happy to ordain me, but it was still against the law. It wasn’t until UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) was established in 1992 that I was able to become a monk legally.

How did you first become involved in land rights advocacy?

In 2009 there were growing land disputes in my home commune of Chi Kraeng in Siem Reap Province. These land disputes occurred because of land grabbing by powerful businessmen who bribed the local authorities. The authorities granted their company 475 hectares of land in the commune and 175 families from six villages were forcibly removed as a result of this deal. Both my brother and my nephew were shot and injured in the conflicts. The people lost their land, lost their rice, and many have been taken to prison and have lost their freedom.

These people had done nothing wrong. They followed the rules of the Buddha: good speaking, good thinking, and good action. Some of them used to be monks as well, and yet these things have still happened to them.

The people of Chi Kraeng who had their land or the land of their family or others in their community taken by companies were looking for someone who could speak cleverly in their defense. They needed someone who could lead the people, but those that tried to take this role were arrested, they were charged in the courts, and sent to prison. These people were poor already. They had their land taken and those that spoke out were sent to prison. The poor became poorer and poorer. When I saw this happening to people in my own community it made me very sad.

I thought, this is injustice! The authorities, the businessmen, the police, and the courts; they have violated these peoples’ rights. Why are they not held responsible and arrested? Instead they arrest the victims. They arrest the poor. I felt so much pity for them and I decided to join with my community to advocate for justice. On March 22, 2009, I decided to become an activist and organize campaigns to protect the freedom of the villagers of Chi Kraeng commune. As soon as I joined the protests these problems also happened to me.

How do the communities feel to have a monk supporting them when they protest?

Monks are very powerful figures among lay people in Cambodia. Over 90 percent of Cambodians follow Buddhism. When the Buddhist monk speaks or when he joins a cause the people believe in that. The Buddhist monk is a symbol of peace, justice, and non-violence. When a monk joins them, their hearts become strong and the solidarity becomes strong.

A monk can also increase the popularity of a movement because many people choose to join with the monk. They know that if a monk has joined an activity, it must be positive. They know that a monk will not lead them to shooting, fighting or lying. They only lead them in good actions. So why don’t the authorities want monks joining in these kinds of activities? Because then they lose the power, they lose their advantage. That’s why they are very afraid of the monk.

We had an experience after the elections in 1998 when much violence broke out. So the monks walked for peace and many Cambodians followed them. The government accused the monks of joining demonstrations. The army and police shot the monks and the students. Now, most monks don’t take part in demonstrations because they are afraid. After the demonstrations, the authorities said that the monks should not join the people, but this is not the law of the Buddha. It is a new prohibition because they were afraid of the monks. This is not only true in Cambodia, but in many countries like Myanmar and China.

In the past in Cambodia, monks had freedom. Monks provided their communities with social protection. The monks were teachers and helped Cambodia to develop. If there was no Buddhism, maybe there would be no Cambodia today. If we look at Kampuchea Krom, which is controlled by Vietnam, if they did not have monks, there would be no more Kampuchea Krom, everyone there would have become Vietnamese. The monk has helped teach the Khmer language, culture, and values. That is why they still have Khmer identity, because of what the monks did. Buddhism is very important to the Khmer and this is why in Cambodia right now it is so important for the government to focus on controlling religion.

How do you connect the teachings of the Buddha to your work to bring justice to the victims of land grabbing?

I believe that the work that I do follows the right path of Buddha’s teachings. It also follows the laws of humanity and democracy. However, those in power, the government and the Sangha authorities, have not supported my work. It can be very difficult in Cambodia to work for social justice and this is even truer if we want to use Buddhism to work for social justice.

We want to use the Buddhist teachings to help the people of Cambodia. These ideas can help fight poverty and injustice. Buddhism teaches compassion, and we need to have compassion for the victims of land grabbing and forced evictions. We can also think about Buddhism in terms of human rights. The Buddha said that people must have good actions and help each other. This is the rule of the Buddha; good actions in thinking, speaking, and doing. This is the theory of Buddhism and the freedom of Buddhism. The authorities want us to stop this approach; stop speaking, stop doing, stop thinking.

The monks should keep a quiet heart because if we don’t keep our heart quiet, we would be violent also. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be to be quiet ourselves. We can speak out. We must protect our heart and use our heart to be good people and good citizens.

Why do you think that the leaders of the Sangha are so unhappy with the work you are doing? Does it have any religious basis or is it simply political?

Right now Buddhist monks in Cambodia are not free and this is because of the political situation. There is only one position that is acceptable. This is true whether it is the Ministry of Cults and Religion, Ministry of Education, or the Ministry of Justice. All the ministries in Cambodia only have the same politics; it controls all of them. Because Buddhism in Cambodia is controlled by the government and the government is controlled by a single political party, that party is able to install Buddhist leaders that share their positions. This has nothing to do with the rules of Buddhism. If a monk follows those in power he is not wrong, but if he doesn’t he is accused of being wrong. If you follow them you can have money and power, an easy life. For me, my life is not so easy. Because of my work they have accused me of doing wrong actions, they have banned me from the pagodas. Right now I have no pagoda to stay in. I don’t just stay in one place I am constantly moving. Anywhere there are land disputes and injustice I try to be there and give my support. Sometimes I even stay in the forest, in Prey Lang.

They view us as dissenters, as opposition and we are labeled bad people, not good citizens. We are discriminated against. The rules are not the same for us. When we want to hold a freedom ceremony in Chi Kraeng we apply for a permit, we follow the laws. We ask for permission from the commune chief, the commune chief sends me to the district chief and the district chief sends me to the province chief. So who can decide? Who can sign off on our event? The process doesn’t follow the law.

When the authorities come to stop me, they say “this is an order from the top.” They don’t talk about the law; they just say that “this is an order from the top.” For me, I don’t want to follow orders, I want to follow the law. I ask them what law have I broken? How am I wrong? I want to ask them. They say this is just their orders and they have to follow the orders.

What do you see as the role of a monk in society?

If we talk about the monk in Buddhism, we need to know about the Buddha. What is the history of the Buddha, what did he do in his life? How can his example guide us as monks? Well, the Buddha never stayed in a pagoda during his lifetime. He traveled all around, and everywhere he went he educated communities. He wanted to help people with their social problems. Where there was suffering the Buddha arrived there. Where there was war, the Buddha would travel there and educate. He would help negotiate between the sides and turn war into peace. The Buddha had great wisdom and a philosophy that could help the people. The philosophy is not rigid like science, but in a way Buddhism is science as well. Monks are like doctors. The philosophy is medicine for the heart. It can heal people and it can protect them.

The real Buddhist monks don’t just stay in the pagoda. During his lifetime Buddha had no pagoda. He stayed under the tree. Pagodas were only built because of the good heart of the people, who wanted to make a place for the monks to stay and help them.

If we think about human rights, the Buddha was a human rights defender also. We can think about the five precepts as human rights. He said don’t kill each other, don’t steal from each other, don’t use violence or other bad actions against each other. The Buddha was also a defender of the forest and a defender of the animals as well. The Buddha wasn’t born in a hospital, he was born in the forest. He reached enlightenment in the forest and he died in the forest.

Monks are students of the Buddha. We are children of the Buddha. We should learn from him and follow his example. The Buddha is not still with us. He has died, but the teachings live on. It is all written in the Dhamma and in the Buddhist doctrines and we just have to look to them for guidance.

The Buddha told us that happiness is not for one person alone. True happiness is not a selfish feeling. When we have inner peace and happiness we share this with others. So if we follow the Buddhist teachings, we as monks cannot just stay in the pagoda, we have to join with our society. Right now I am the only monk in the country that does this kind of work. Because of the political situation other monks are afraid. It’s dangerous. But their hearts are the same as mine. They support me.

Are there particular religious figures in history that you are inspired by?

Yes, there are many brave religious figures in Cambodian history and I try to follow in their footsteps. During the French colonial period, we had Chuon Nath, Hout That, Po Kambo, and Hem Chieu. They were all strong defenders of freedom and advocates for Cambodian independence. Some were killed for what they believed. More recently we had Maha Ghosananda. But for me the most inspiring person is Buddha himself.

Some call you the “multimedia monk” because you use the internet and audiovisual tools in your advocacy. Why do you think it’s important for engaged Buddhists to make use of technology?

For myself, because I became a monk, I have been able to study Buddhism as well as academic subjects and also learn how to use technology. I use these tools like cameras and computers because these things can help us to advocate for justice. Of course technology can be used for bad purposes as well, but if we use it for good, it can really help us. Technology can make our messages more powerful. For example, if we write a document, poem, or song or make a video, we can spread them using technology. Many people can see, can hear, and can know both nationally and internationally. This is the power of technology if we use if for freedom, justice, and peace.

Audio/visual tools in particular are very important in human rights work because we need real evidence. If we don’t have real evidence the authorities can accuse us, but if we record using cameras we can capture the truth. This is how we can challenge injustice. The authorities and the police are very afraid of the camera.

For example, we were going to the courthouse to support community members from Chi Kraeng who had been arrested. When the police stopped the cars, we went by motorbikes; when they stopped the motorbikes, we went on foot. When they blocked the road, we walked in the fields. When we got to the courtroom, they didn’t allow us inside. I said, “But this is supposed to be a public trial!” The people were afraid because the police had guns and we only had a camera, but the police were afraid when they saw the camera. They hid their faces. I said, “This is a public road. If you don’t want to be videotaped, please move from the road.” They said, “But we have rights too; we have the right not to be videotaped.” But police, politicians, and government employees are public servants; their work is not a private activity, it’s a public activity. They need to be accountable.

I produce DVDs with the recordings that I have made. When I was at Wat Ounalom, police would come to my room and confiscate the DVDs. Some monks would be afraid and they would run. I am always happy to speak with the police, their words and actions may be violent, but I respond peacefully. They would tell me, “This DVD is wrong.” I would say, “This is the truth. It is not edited. How can it be wrong?” Anyway, I take responsibility for these DVDs. If you don’t like them, you can complain to the court.

The camera has been very important to our success. Before I began using technology like this nobody knew who I was. The media did not know me and the NGOs did not know me. Now people around the world know about the cause.

How has NGO support been important on these issues and for you personally?

As Cambodians we want to rely on our government for help, but the government doesn’t always help us. Sometimes we have to ask NGOs for help. For example, the communities in Chi Kraeng have had to rely on LICHADO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) to protect their rights. LICHADO has lawyers that they provide free of charge. The community does not have the money to hire private lawyers, so we have to rely on the NGOs for legal support. Many other NGOs also provide important services. For example, Caritas provides food to detainees in jail. Other NGOs provide education and support to communities so they know their rights and they can advocate for themselves. Some NGOs also monitor human rights and this is important.

I’m not an NGO staff so I have the freedom to join anyone and work with them. We often have meetings with NGOs to share knowledge and experiences so we can help each other.

How do you envision development in Cambodia? How does your vision differ from the present reality?

Yes, in Cambodia we need development. We need to have a standard of living like other developed countries, but we need development that respects the law and respects people's human rights. We need to make sure that all people can share in the benefits of development. If development is democratic, respects the laws of our country and human rights and uses Buddhist values, then that is real development. Many people can get results from this kind of development. If it doesn’t respect these then all Cambodians will be negatively affected.

This kind of development can also destroy Cambodia’s natural resources: our lakes, mountains, and forests. Yes, maybe if we destroy these things we can get development, but who receives this development? It is the companies, the powerful men, and the powerful families. The rest of the Cambodians are even poorer. The natural resources of Cambodia are the property of all Cambodians. Before, when a poor family didn’t have enough to eat they could go into the forest, they could go to the lakes and rivers and get fish to feed their family. They could take fruits from the trees or wood for their fire. Now the government has given the forests away to companies as Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) and they tell us, “this is our property,” but before the local people could also benefit from these places.

Seventy percent of Cambodia used to be covered in forest, but now deforestation is happening so quickly. This has made natural disasters much worse and caused great suffering. Now people are dying every year from floods and typhoons. This never happened before. When Thailand would have terrible flooding, Cambodia would be protected. This year both Thailand and Cambodia have been devastated by terrible flooding; many people have died and deforestation has a major role in this.

I think that the government needs a development strategy that respects all people equally. This is not the strategy in Phnom Penh where many people are negatively affected by forced evictions, especially the poor. Right now the development strategy does not respect the rights of these people to live, it only respects money and power. We don’t need development like this. We need the kind of development that everyone can join in and get results from as well. For example, we can look at sugar cane. Sugar cane requires a lot of land. If the government grants this land to a company, it has very negative effects on the local communities. It takes their rice fields and also their homes. But if the company decides to build a factory and buys sugar cane from the community at a fair price then everyone can receive development results. But, of course, that is not the way that it works right now, the government just gives an ELC.

If we have a good political system and strong laws, we can attract good companies. Now there are mostly bad companies operating in Cambodia, the good ones won’t come because we don’t have good laws; things are very corrupt. Many factory workers are paid just $15 per month to feed their families. Good companies cannot compete.

What are your plans for the future?

Because of my work the authorities have banned me, threatened to defrock me, and threatened me with violence, but I have not stopped. This has just made my conviction stronger. Even though I have no pagoda, I choose not to go abroad. It is not easy for activists in Cambodia. Many Khmer people living abroad are political refugees from different periods in our history. They fled because they had such bad problems here. The only reason I can stay is because of the support of the communities.

I cannot leave because the problems that I face here are not because I have done something wrong. It is our society’s problem. It is our government’s problem. I could close my mouth and never say another word, but the problem would still exist. It will exist until we can face the problem. This is the only way we can resolve it. If I left the country, there would be no Buddhist monk to speak out about this. Leaving would be a selfish action. We need more monks to stand up and to use the freedom of Buddhism to help society. Government is not the only force that can develop Cambodia, Buddhism can develop the country as well.

The Buddha said that through good actions we can get good results and through true speaking we can find success. Why should I be afraid? We are only afraid if we have done something wrong. If we steal someone’s property, we are afraid. If we steal someone’s money, we are afraid because we know we have done something wrong. If we do only good actions and speak only the truth, we should not be afraid, we can face anyone.