A Second Discussion with Heng Monychenda, Director of Buddhism for Development
August 24, 2010
Background:Michael Scharff and Augustina Delaney met with Heng Monychenda and Mike Clarke in Battambang in October 2009, as part of WFDD's review of faith and development in Cambodia. Their discussion focused on what unique attributes Cambodian Buddhism offers for the development process, and, more specifically, on the origins and current work of Buddhism for Development (BFD, the organization that Monychenda founded and where Clarke serves as Management and Business Advisor). The text was finalized following email exchanges with Katherine Marshall in August 2010. Monychenda situates BFD in the context of the revival of Buddhism in Cambodia in the 1990s, and elaborates on their “bottom-up” approach. He also discusses the development challenges that Cambodia faces today, including its religious diversity, and warns of the dangers of mixing development with proselytism. This interview is complementary to a November 2009 discussion that took place in the context of the Berkley Center/WFDD Southeast Asia regional review.
How did Buddhism for Development get started? And what is it today?
We created Buddhism for Development (BFD) in 1990, thus 20 years ago. Its first location and purpose was in the camps along the Cambodia-Thai border during the troubled times of that era, helping the displaced people living there. A group of monks, including myself, began to work in the camps, and in 1992, even before the repatriation program, we moved to Cambodia itself. In that new phase, we kept the same concept: Buddhism for development. Thus the name and the idea have been constant from the start. That is who we are; we are confident that we are on the right track.
BFD now works in seven provinces in the north and west of Cambodia, working from the headquarters in Battambang. The area extends from Pailin (the Khmer Rouge were based there at one time), to Banteay Meanchey, the Thai border, and then to Oddor Meanchey, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, and Preah Vihear.
As we celebrate our twentieth anniversary, we find ourselves are reflecting on what we have done, as well as what we plan to do in the next 20 years! Our reflections center on the kinds of models that Cambodia is following in its development and what models it should follow, because there are important choices. As I (Heng Monychenda) traveled around Europe, South Asia, and America, I met many Cambodians living abroad. It was striking that while they were very proud of their country, they thought that Cambodia should model itself after this or that country. Some even suggested a return to a French protectorate, given Cambodia’s sorry history. Cambodians in America suggested that Cambodia should be like America, because it is the largest and most powerful country. I asked myself where I myself thought Cambodia should go, reflecting the many influences that our country had experienced. We had many different physical conflicts, external and internal. The educational and emotional conflicts Cambodia has experienced evidently affect the choices of models as we look to reconstruct our country.
So I asked, why do we not look at what we are actually doing and what we can do? I believe strongly that each country has its own merit and values, some kind of indigenous spirit, indigenous culture, and indigenous strategy, and that is what is needed in rebuilding the nation. Let the nation heal itself. Cambodia must heal itself through its own values and beliefs, not those of others. And Buddhism is one essential part of Cambodia. About 95 percent of the population is Buddhist and Cambodia has been Buddhist for a long time. There must be teachings in Buddhism, I thought, that could be used in healing the nation and its people, because healing after the conflict and war and maintaining peace are so essential to developing the country.
Thus a central idea behind BFD is that Buddhism can contribute both to healing and to development. We looked for Buddhist teachings that related to the different areas: development, healing, and the maintenance of peace. We looked to how Buddhist institutions, including pagodas, monks, etc. were useful in the society. We explored how the participation of Buddhists could contribute to the healing, reconstruction, and peacebuilding process that was going on at the time. We began training in socially-engaged Buddhism, based on the idea that Buddhism—both Buddhist ideas and Buddhist monks—could help people, especially the refugees and displaced people.
Ironically, we have found that many Cambodians have found the basic idea difficult to understand. Their initial reaction is that it is about development for Buddhism, and they come to us with requests to build a temple or residences for the monks. I always emphasize that we are not development for Buddhism, but Buddhism for development.
How has BFD developed and changed since those early years?
As we have expanded, we have looked more at how the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha can be helpful in reconciling different factions in Cambodia, reintegrating the community, and redeveloping the country. We have become more and more involved in activities that correspond to peoples’ real needs. One way we draw that out is through a nationwide Socially Engaged Buddhist National Seminar that we have run since 1994.
We also have worked directly in conflict resolution. An example is the seminar that we ran while conflict was still raging. We invited all the conflicting parties, including the Khmer Rouge, CPP, KPNLF, and the royalist group, to come together and listen and discuss. We explored how we could put down the gun, and take up the Dhamma. In Pailin, Khmer Rouge soldiers said, “If we put down the gun, the Vietnamese or the Vietnamese puppets will kill us.” When we talked with soldiers in the main areas of the country, they said, “Yes, put down the gun and the Khmer Rouge will come again.” But even so, there was keen interest in dialogue and we published a book on the topic. After two or three years of the book spreading it started to do the job, and in 1998 in Pailin, they celebrated “Culture of Peace” Day. Banners with the slogan “Put Down the Gun, Take up the Dhamma” were hung everywhere. The book was abstracted in a speech given by the governor. Everyone talked about peace; every faction signed the book. The approach was effective.
Our main focus has been and remains in communities. Starting in 1999, we have been able to establish small units at the community level, known as peace and development volunteers, or PDV. These volunteers are elected by secret ballot in their own communities. We train them to be the agents of change, to promote peace and development in their own village, based on the self-help concept. They watch for human rights violations. They also reach out to promote peace and reconciliation. At the start, many people were still living in zones controlled by the Khmer Rouge. The idea was that the PDV in the Khmer Rouge zone and the PDV in other areas would talk. Through this dialogue, feelings of animosity began to disappear, and people become friendlier and friendlier. Today, the divides are far less clear and the former Khmer Rouge can hardly be seen as a distinct group.
Most work involving communal or group activity in Buddhism starts with the central Buddhist concept of saddh?, which is confidence or trust. If you don’t trust each other, how can you work together? That is why we built the PDV on trust, trust in each other, trust in what they can do, and trust in what they can achieve together. The PDV covers two or three districts in each of the seven provinces (we wanted to cover all districts, but we could not). From there, we went up to the commune level, where we helped the commune council establish the Committee to Prevent and Manage Human Rights Violations. It includes commune council members, some PDV, and civically engaged individuals. The committees have worked well and the Ministry of Interior has adopted this model. We recently met with them to discuss progress.
The Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, and the UNDP has recently tried to implement a structure similar to the PDV and CPMHRV groups in some provinces down south. It has not been entirely successful, because it has more of a top-down than a bottom-up character.
There has been fitful cooperation between BFD and others on the broader work. Based in part on the work of an independent Australian researcher, the ministries decided to adopt a program similar to the BFD/PDV model, and sought funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to provide training for the commune councils. We prepared a Khmer translation of a possible approach, but the officials were silent; they did not even print the book or make it available. Later, they came out with a thin book and issued a letter to all the commune councils, telling the councils that they had to establish a committee and they needed to have specific kinds of people. Our original program gave full authority to the council to decide whom they wanted to include or recruit. We had no model that required a certain number of people in the committee. The point is that this is not a BFD group; it is their group. They name the group.
We believe that the model has not worked as well in other places because of this important difference: the top-down as opposed to bottom-up philosophy. Instead of the PDV and committee being representatives of the local community, they are nominated by the Ministry of Justice or the Ministry of Interior as roving ambassadors for justice. They act as some sort of magistrate. They confuse the link between local dispute resolution and the court system, so there is jealousy. It is unclear where the court system fits and where these people fit.
Does BFD work with Buddhist clergy?
Our programs involve both nuns and monks: how can they reach out and teach people about domestic violence, conflicts between husbands and wives, children not going to school, and people affected by HIV/AIDS. In our HIV/AIDS project, the monks go out and talk to the people, so they do not lose hope and they can learn how to confront their disease. In another program, monks work with children to strengthen their morality, because that tends to be a subject that receives little attention. For five or six years, we had yearly seminars during the children’s school breaks, rather like a summer camp where young boys and girls came together. We would use the Buddhist ceremonies to teach them. We also had a program on landmines, to increase students’ awareness about how landmines can affect their lives.
How does BFD deal with human rights issues?
We do not approach human rights in the same way they do on the radio and in Phnom Penh. We do human rights by empowering people to understand human rights. We promote respect for human rights and taking proper action against human rights violation—taking action at the commune level, not at my level or the Phnom Penh level.
All the five basic areas where BFD works involve an important right: a right to education or a right to a dignified life. Human rights are a big focus in governance, local government, and assisting people to be more effective in their local communities. For example, children’s education is a big part of our program. We work with Terres de Hommes Netherlands and Enfant du Mekong in providing many scholarships. We work with the Japanese to construct schools. We have a large health program where we work with HIV/AIDS families and people who are part of those communities. So in many respects we can be seen as a rights-based organization.
One of the main concepts in Buddhism, which the Buddha spoke to often, is life. He is talking about aggregation; thus we focus on integrated activities or holistic projects and programs. We believe that focusing on one area while ignoring the other is not good. Even if people have rights, they still need rice. This is a principle that we believe in deeply, and it excludes us from some work; for example one donor wanted to do a quite specific project but we told him we could not focus just on one area.
Do you see conflict resolution as the core of BFD’s activities?
Conflict resolution, to my mind, is part of human rights. Sometimes conflict becomes a violation of human rights, and sometimes there is a human rights conflict that needs to be solved by conflict resolution. It is like the chicken and the egg: you cannot really say which one comes first.
For example, recently in Oddor Meanchey, when military and police destroyed more than a hundred homes, we advised the people on how to take action in a non-violent way. At first the people were not convinced that they could do anything, because they were not armed. Two or three months later, however, the military people came to the village people and asked them not to tell the higher-ups. They said they were willing to pay for everything they had destroyed. The villagers answered that if they returned their land, rebuilt their houses, and gave them compensation, they would not pursue the matter to higher levels. If these people had not learned how to take proper action to address the problem, it might well not have ended so well.
Another example is a dispute that arose when the government sought to expel nearly all the people living in a former Khmer Rouge area; the reason given was that the area needed to be protected for the colored crane (a rare species of bird found in Cambodia), so humans should not be living there. We are not advocates, but we helped those people stand up and talk. We organized a seminar about how cranes and humans could live together. Today people still live in the area, as 400 to 500 families were allowed to remain in the area.
An important outcome of successful conflict resolution is that people can live together and work together after the conflict. Legal and judicial processes are important but they rarely solve conflicts. Coming away from a resolved dispute in the court system, the people often truly hate each other and still view each other as the enemy. Even if it is a criminal case, no one believes that the court system can solve the problem. Solving conflicts needs a different path and approach.
There is an important relationship between peace and development. There are debates about this in Cambodia, at the highest levels: which is more important, human rights and development or peace and development? They all are.
What are some of the key Buddhist teachings that you draw on as a motivation for social engagement?
The Buddha’s first order, given five months after his enlightenment, to the first 60 monks, was to go out and reach the people, to proclaim the Dhamma, the way of life for the people, because it is for their benefit. The Buddha taught that people could not find peace if they did not listen to the Dhamma.
People tend to focus on what the monks are doing, because most people see the monks as representing Buddhism. We therefore encourage the monks to search out this original intention of the Buddha. That means getting the monks out of the pagodas, teaching and reaching out to people. We need to reflect carefully on the principles and laws of the Buddha that truly allow monks to do far more for the society within their daily lives.
How do you deal with other faiths?
We work with a group of nuns in an area where there is a large Muslim Cham minority. Those donchee (Buddhist nuns) reach out to all the houses, whether they are in a Khmer or Cham community. Some people may say that, because we are Buddhism for Development, our conflict resolution work in a Cham community would be based on Buddhism. But that is not true. In the Cham community, they set up their own group using their Imam; we do not interfere with that. The basic model is the same, but it is implemented in a different way. Similarly in our HIV/AIDS program, actions are based on individuals’ own religion. Perhaps someday, we may even change our name from Buddhism for Development to Religion for Development!
But the point is that we do not discriminate, and in many respects our approach is interfaith. BFD has held a number of interfaith seminars with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the German political foundation that has supported BFD for 20 years. BFD is often the main partner in initiating interfaith group meetings, and there has been one almost every year. Last year the meeting focused on the main concepts of all religions. The year before a seminar highlighted “Social Justice from the Perspective of Each Religion in Cambodia.” We had Buddhists, Muslim Cham, Catholics, and Protestants present papers that were published in a book, to show how each group views social justice and how programs can be implemented.
We are ready to use any kind of teaching that we can to improve people’s understanding. Yet the monks have special importance; with some 50,000 monks in Cambodia, if we had the means to help them we would have 50,000 free of charge social workers.
But if the teachings of the Buddha stress the need to work in the community, shouldn’t there be more socially-engaged monks in Cambodia already?
Suggesting that not many monks are socially engaged is a rather “half empty” way to look at it. I see it the other way around: the glass is half full and it’s getting fuller. Monks have in fact been engaged for a long time, but in an unsystematic way. Monks have built schools and hospitals, but nobody realized that it was social engagement because the term wasn’t there. The way forward is to let them do it in a more systematic way or to look for extensions of the activities that they can do.
For example, environmental issues. When you go to Siem Reap, you pass by a mountain that was transformed by socially-engaged monks. In 1994/1995, the mountain was bald; there was nothing on the top. A monk came and learned from us, then went and started to protect and plant trees. Thus the monks became engaged in environmental programs. We have tree nurseries in the pagodas.
And like everyone else, it is important today to promote such work through television. I remember in 1995 I started talking about HIV/AIDS on television. I was a monk at the time, and people could not understand why I would talk about that topic. We initially asked for help from USAID, telling them it was not about “Development for Buddhism,” that is, about religion, but even so no one really supported us. Then the Ministry of Religious Affairs organized seminars and strategies with UNICEF on HIV/AIDS, with Buddhist monks and with BFD. Now everyone talks about how the monks can help.
We recently established community radio stations that focus on how Buddhist monks and the people can work together. Starting in early 2007, we had programs about daily life and how Buddhism can help solve those problems. At first, we had to pay for the radio station. We paid for three months but by the fourth month, people started contributing their own money. It was the first live talk show from the monks to the people; before that there were only recordings. We now have about 17 programs a day of live talk radio in Battambang involving various groups of monks and lay people. The topics include Buddhism and society, Buddhism and literature, Buddhism and culture, Buddhism and peace, Buddhism and education, and so on. We have been able to organize the project in five provinces: Pailin, Oddor Meanchey, Banteay Meanchey, Pursat, and Siem Reap. People from Svey Rieng and Phnom Penh have also come to learn about what we were doing. This is a way for them to engage. Community radio can reach a hundred kilometers and it contributes to improving the quality of life.
Socially-engaged Buddhism is not just restricted to the monks and donchee. Community radio can actually be a vehicle to increase the community’s social engagement. Apart from supporting the costs of the radio station, they contribute 100 riel or 500 riel a day to the box in the pagoda. This is used for food purchases and things like that, so the monks can go out to a poor village. People are thus being mobilized to take responsibility for their own in very effective ways.
Would you say therefore that these concepts are being incorporated into the community?
Families are very aware of community activities and often want to be able to support each other. That comes from Buddhism and its entire spirituality. But there are important distortions. People have always believed that giving food to the monks was the most meritful act, but that is not what the Buddha said. He did not start with the idea of merit and monks. He started with the word dana, which means donation. There are many kinds of dana: dana to the poor or to animals or to monks. Yet people have focused only on dana for monks and beggars, rather than social construction. That is why we teach that dana is not only building temples; it can be building a school or a water pond. It is what you can share from yourself to others. We stress this broader social understanding and we see people’s willingness to contribute expanding. At first they would give 2000 riel to the station. Then, they would give 1,000 riel to the station, 500 riel to the monk who always comes by at night, and 500 riel to the poor. Thus they are repartitioning and also increasing the amounts they give.
This is related to the question of trust. A spoiling point in Cambodia is that money flowed to local governments during the war, to help the soldiers at the front. Local governments later sought money to help build different things, but the concrete buildings never appeared. So people today are looking for someone who can be trusted. When we can bring resources or materials to a community, we ask: “What will you use this for?” They may say, “Well, I want to sell some cake, but I don’t have the means to do it.” We do not ask for such explanations from very poor or very old people, and sometimes we give money to young couples who are very poor and have no home, but have the strength to do something. We follow up later to see what people have done to improve their lives. And the monks and the nuns have demonstrated that they can do things.
How do you become involved in a new project? Do you identify a need or do people come from you?
Our philosophy is a bottom-up approach, that you might call a needs assessment. But a full study or research project is not what is needed; a simple base line or primary data can allow us to judge whether or not the idea is appropriate. Secondly, one Buddhist teaching is the idea of dependent origination based on what has already happened. Thus we usually look at what already exists and think about how we can strengthen it. With the monks, we may see them doing something, but unsystematically, so we devise a way to make it work better. A community that we were familiar with had Buddhist teachings broadcast on the local radio. It was one-way communication and people liked to listen to it, but they had no way to respond. We suggested they do a live talk program, so that people could call in or write letters and the monks could answer their questions. It started based on what they had. It is the same for human rights. Many people think that human rights are a Western concept, but it is in the Buddhist teachings. The five precepts tell us not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, and not to drink alcohol. Based on what is already in place, what can we improve? We are more focused on absorbing from them than forcing upon them. It goes back to what I said about a top-down approach.
When you try to spread the teachings of social engagement, what is the most effective approach? Do you go to the monks and then have the monks teach the people in their community? Or are you trying to target everybody?
It depends on the circumstances. Poor children, poor families, monks, nuns, and many others should have access to development. We want to give everyone access to opportunities.
In our conflict resolution work, we did not use the monks in the beginning, just the people who had conflicts. An important part of our teaching is that the people who are suffering must realize that they are suffering, or we cannot do anything with them. They first must see that they have a problem, and then we ask them what they want to do about it. The people involved initiated some committees, and we just facilitated them. We start at the beginning. We remind them that in our way of life in the past, we would go to the monks, so they might go to the monks. They went a step further and went to the donchee and the acha (elders). Sometimes they ask us to include a monk in the training, and we do. The monk can then be a part of the conflict resolution. Although we see the value of the monks, it does not mean all monks approve of my view of social engagement. Sometimes people are more receptive than the conservative monks. One of my supreme patriarchs is not receptive.
More broadly, much of our project activity is not directly connected with monks and donchee. We use our networks of PDVs or contacts we have made in the communes and villages over the last 20 years. We have access to about 400 trained volunteer staff that are very familiar with the way in which the communities operate. For example, at the moment we are doing a large campaign with the World Bank and NCDD (National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development) on land rights. We are working in a 180 communes, offering guidance and information about land law. All of this is happening through our community networks, not through the pagodas, monks or donchees. A large part of our work, and it may even be increasing, is in community development. That does not mean that it is not also socially-engaged Buddhism. The communities themselves are reasonably alert to Buddhist teachings.
Many communities function quite well. People ask how we can maintain the PDVs, why they continue working, and what we give them. The only thing that we have given them, beyond their training, was one bicycle. In the original contracts, we expected the PDV to work for three years, but long after they are still functioning. The mother dies, the father dies, and they ask if they can put their child in their place, which is fine. In some places it becomes a kind of inherited volunteer work. When people ask what the PDVs receive, I say prestige. People did not accept the PDV fully at the start, but after awhile they realized that the PDVs are important and so they respect them. Some people, not knowing the background, call them Metheavy, which means lawyer, because he or she can tell them about the legal system. Our training prepares them for this kind of broad work.
A teaching of Buddhism is that volunteer work is meritful. It brings not only the daily tangible benefits but also broader merit. The PDVs do what they do based on the merit they gain and because the people love them. For example, in one or two areas we found that after a couple years the quality of life of the PDVs had increased. They could do business without spending money. Many people know the PDVs and trust them and network with them. When a gentleman was in an accident in a village, villagers and police tried to force him to pay an exorbitant amount of money to the victim. He had no money so he called his relative, who was a PDV in another village, and asked for help. She suggested that he talk to another woman in that village who was also a PDV. They met and she demonstrated her knowledge of the law; she was able to reduce the amount of money he had to pay. That is why people continue to believe that the PDVs are helpful. When the project finished, we asked PDVs if they wanted to stop working or end their groups. They answered, “Can I stop? You may allow me to stop, but the people will not stop coming to my house.” Their houses had become a central point that people came to with their problems, more so than the village leader.
We were able to tap into these networks in various contexts, including in work for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). There is a problem, though, which makes these organizations hesitant: the networks told the truth about how corrupt the local government is and how the poor people did not receive any material assistance from projects. We gave them a full report, but when Radio Free Asia asked about the problem we replied that we are under contract not to disclose information. Only ADB has the report. One benefit of our intervention was that with the information people gave us we were able to solve some problems in specific areas. One of our goals is to keep a good image and good relationships on all sides. Our networks are based on moral values and merit making, not just on income.
Is there any continuing training of PDV?
In most of the areas, we no longer have donor funding and have not been successful in finding new sources of funds. We try to help the PDVs as we can, and they still call our branch offices if they have problems. We can refer them to an NGO that might help, and put them in touch with journalists.
But the results at the grassroots are truly sustainable results. Part of the strategy, and its Buddhist roots, is that our task is just to educate. The Buddha called it proclamation. We advise, but you do it by yourself. The Buddhist concept is self-help: first you help yourself.
We have worked at different times at the commune level also, to develop strategic plans for human rights activities, and we are bidding for funds to carry through this work. It is an ongoing process, where you create the assistance, develop the plan, and then seek the resources to actually implement.
What are BFD’s funding sources?
We have about 15 donors now, including the ADB, World Bank, EDM (Enfants du Mekong). These donors look beyond the Buddhism in our vision.
Have you ever met skepticism among donors on your approach or ethos? Have you encountered concern about evangelizing or proselytizing?
That seems to be less and less of an issue. Even some Christian groups are open to the activities of the monks. ICCO (a Netherlands based inter-church organization for development cooperation) is one example; they have asked BFD for a proposal relating to the role of socially engaged Buddhists, though we have not yet discussed it with them in detail.
The issue for most of our partners is to determine whether a group has primarily or purely a religious motivation behind its work, or if it is using religion for bettering the people. There are some organizations in Cambodia—I would highlight the evangelical groups—who come here only for the development of their religion. It is a kind of bonded aid or bounded assistance: I give to you, and you give me back your faith, or something like that. This can increase at times when people face severe difficulties in remote areas, for example indigenous groups that have no way of sustaining their livelihood. Church groups come and give help at the same time they teach their religion. This amounts to a large problem that we are now facing, and it seems as if nobody is really trying to solve it. No one talks about it face to face. Everyone in meetings is trying to avoid an open conflict. Further, the people who come to the meetings are not the ones who are doing the “conditional aid”: they never come. I stress again my firm belief that the concept of religion for development is far better than development for religion.
The Oriental Studies Department at Sophia University in Japan invited me to speak there. I mentioned a Catholic father that I had met in the refugee camps, Father Pierre Ceyrac he came and gave help to anyone, whether they were Buddhist or Catholic, whoever came to him. I still respect him and do not hesitate to tell anyone that I get inspiration from him, even though he is a Jesuit priest. His behavior has become a model for me and has influenced my life. Today, however, people try to manipulate children with sugar and candy or entice people with a bag of rice or money to go to church:” if you go to church, I will give you 10,000 riel,” and so on. I believe that to help the people to help their own religion is a far better approach. Buddhists ask us why we don’t help them to gain more knowledge about Buddhism or help them to build a temple. But if I build a temple, in the future nobody will build them. But if I help you to help yourself, and you continue to believe in Buddhism, then you will build the temple yourself.
For some reason, there is a currently lot of missionary activity in this area, concentrated in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey districts. A lot focuses on children and building schools that belong to the church, opening orphanages, and so on and so forth. This region seems to be something of a magnet for that type of work. It does raise issues of children’s rights, as children are often too young to decide by themselves whether they want the kind of gift that requires them to give their faith in return. You should not manipulate children to believe in your own religion by giving them something. You should not go to a remote area and give the children something, then push their heads in the water to baptize them. I see this as a violation of the rights of the children and also a violation of the people’s rights to make decisions. Assistance should not be tied to faith or any kind of religion. It can lead to conflict.
There was a significant conflict in Kampong Thom around such issues. Also the newspaper reported that some missionaries had said that Angkor Wat was built by the Messiah and that the future Buddha is really the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Around 1985 in the camps in Thailand, when we were pushed by the Vietnamese to Thailand, I heard someone say that the reason we faced the Pol Pot regime was because we didn’t believe in God; it was a punishment from God, because we did not believe in Christianity. It is easy to see how conflict can arise from such statements and actions.
There are also real problems with the way teaching is done. Teaching English through the Bible and especially the Old Testament is not especially useful—for example, trying to explain the begets and begots. I picked up a pamphlet once from an English for Bible reading class. It was an abomination.
When you go to a new donor who doesn’t know about Buddhism for Development, do you try to emphasize that you are not trying to spread Buddhism?
Donors are interested but nobody has ever come back to us and said they would not give money because we are a Buddhist proselytizing organization. I do not see it as a big issue. Some years ago, USAID even had a link on their website that showed our monks giving blessing to HIV/AIDS infected people. That had never happened before on the USAID website. It was because they supported KHANA (Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance) on HIV/AIDS and BFD is a partner of KHANA.
Some religious groups call themselves an NGO, but make sure that their staff do not believe in any other religions besides Christianity. If you want to be promoted, you need to say that you are that religion. When we interview we never focus on what a person’s religion is. One of BFD’s senior staff has a Filipina wife and she runs a church herself. That’s fine. Another staff member, Tito, is a former Brother. Early in the morning we have prayers before we get started, because we are located in the pagoda. I tell Tito that he should feel free not to attend, though sometimes he says he wants to go.
I was invited by the Buddhist University in Battambang to teach the monks about world religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhism I know, so I taught it. When it came to Christianity, I don’t know enough, so we invited a father from the Catholic Church. Then we invited a Muslim teacher, who got his education in the Middle East. They had a conversation about prejudices, for example a Muslim saying, “the Buddha has a spot on his head, because he stole jack fruit,” or Buddhists saying that a Muslim has a mother who is a pig and father who is a dog, and that is why they don’t eat dog or pig. This conversation allowed the monks to answer questions and the Muslim to answer questions, so that they were better able to understand each other. People called me afterwards to thank me. They had doubted that it was possible to teach Buddhist monks about what Islam is. That kind of education can be given to the monks to open their minds.
We need more space to reduce the misunderstandings between religions.
Where do you see Cambodia in 10 years? Do you see the glass half full or half empty?
I think the situation will become more complicated in a complicated world, and we do not cope well with such complexities (despite superficial changes like cell phones). BFD’s vision statement concludes that we need to be aware of globalization. Our strategy will be to make people aware of what globalization can offer them. People often describe globalization as a rootless economic business transaction, but I would see it as everything that human beings are doing in their own country, and can now pass through the internet, telephone, and TV systems. But Cambodia is not really ready for all of it.
The future depends on how much “Cambodianess” Cambodia wants to maintain, and how much foreignness comes to Cambodia. That will be the struggle in the future. I think about the Meiji era in Japan, when the country closed their borders for a certain period of time and then opened for the West. They seemed to cope with that well. We did not close our country intentionally, but because of war. Then it seems that since 1993 more than 100 nations have entered Cambodia. It has been huge shock to cope with all the cultures.
So how Cambodia deals with globalization, not only economically but also socially and spiritually, will affect our future. If we do not deal with this well, poverty reduction will become meaningless. The government proudly talked about one year’s two digit economic growth, and then the economic crisis hit. No one ever talks about the people getting poorer, because the government would get angry.
Poverty will still be a major issue that BFD will focus on, and income improvement will continue to be part of our strategy. Here, the poverty line is $0.5 instead of $1, as in the rest of the world. It really should be $2 because everything is so expensive. I fear that Cambodia’s poverty situation will not be much different in 10 years. I fear that there will be more social problems. Already drugs are becoming a problem.
We should talk about the rule of law—from the perspective of Buddhism—over the next 10 years, but fewer donors and projects are addressing rule of law.
We can and must cross boundaries of faith to improve this picture. Some months ago, a group of doctors from Paris came to do ear operations; they came through the Catholic Church, but the approach was purely professional. Hundreds of people flocked to the hospital to get treated. We need more of that kind of cooperation.
The Buddha’s first convention was that he told the Buddhist monks not to blame the other, but to maintain their own rule and regulation. We try to maintain that. Ashoka, the great fifth century ruler, acted on his belief that by harming other religions one harms oneself. We also use that concept. We try to engage the Buddhist monks to maintain their own rules and regulation. Some monks tend to want to retaliate against the Christian groups that always talk negatively about Buddhism and about their own superiority. I can say that none of our networks are retaliating. They maintain the way they live and try to help the people through their own beliefs and teachings.
How does BFD measure its success?
We have done little research to answer that question. I am proud that we work on a project for a little bit and then we let the people maintain it. In 2007, we started one community radio station through BFD, and now we can see nearly 20 such radio stations maintained by the money of the listeners; BFD is no longer involved. We managed the station and after a year and a half we turned it over to the monks; we have a network for them to keep them on track and now are starting to focus on professionalism, by training them about what community radio really is. We work on building the capacity of the group that we initiated. For every project we go to the people and tell them that we have a one-year project. We tell them at the beginning that after one year, it is their project; we never tell them that we will be there for long. The life expectancy of each project is one year, maximum two years, and three years if there is a global agreement.
We need to look at the demographics: 70 percent under 30 and 50 percent under 20. As that changes you will have a huge lump coming through on your distribution. When that peaks between 20 and 40, there are likely to be significant problems in reorganizing social structures, and a lack of jobs. Cambodia needs 200,000 jobs every year, and only a fraction are now created. So we have a large issue with age and job market.
A related consequence is the urban-rural divide, city development and countryside development. We now see the beginnings—or maybe it’s not the beginning but an increasing number—of what appears to be gang activities happening within rural communities. Communes are seeing levels of lawlessness that are likely to become larger problems. These sorts of pressures are increased because the country does not have the capacity economically to service the community. We work with a Swedish group, KDU, the Christian Democratic Union, and they are trying to develop political engagement in youth groups. How to get them involved in the political system? Those sorts of areas are fairly critical in terms of cohesion in the next decade or so.
How many employees does BFD have today? And the annual budget?
Roughly 130 to 150, depending on what sort of projects we are working on. The budget is around $1.2 million, though it has been as high as $1.3 to $1.4 million (for example, last year).
What organizations do you partner with? What are your ideas on networks and coordination?
Because we live in Battambang, not Phnom Penh, networking is not easy. We are also still building ourselves up to reach a standard level, although we don’t know where the standard is. We try to network in temporary activities rather than in a number of networks directly. For example, the human rights network has about 20 organizations and many are reaching out to BFD as a partner—though we are not a human rights organization directly, so we are somewhat reluctant to engage on many issues. We also are part of networks for children rights and with HIV/AIDS group members, because they involve our areas of knowledge and skill. We choose to partner in such a way that we can maintain the relationship and improve the work.
Now that we have finally started to sort out our own financial issues, so that we can share this kind of financial expertise with other organizations. We believe that it is important for NGOs to have clear and good financial management, and we believe we can help.
We initiated the socially-engaged network in the country and we support them sometimes. Whatever we can do to encourage ethical values, Buddhist or other, is good. But we encourage Buddhist ethical values rather than Buddhist teachings toward the worldly issues that many groups of people are facing.
People have tried to set up a network in Battambang. I have a directory of NGOs, but that was funded by UNDP about five years ago, and it was a directory. It doesn’t mean that all those people work together. At the same time, we can go and partner and work with small groups of people. We do all the time. Maybe it is just on a bit of agriculture or HIV/AIDS activities. There is a lot of local activity that is more informal than formal.
We come back to the issue of top-down versus bottom-up. Some organizations in Phnom Penh seek to set themselves up as the standard body for NGOs to come be a part of. They ask organizations to pay $100 or $1,000 to be a member. The question is: Why is that of value to us to go and join that organization? Others ask us if we can we set up a workshop for all of the NGOs in Battambang. We had a meeting with 35 or 40 NGOs here about six weeks ago for the Asia Foundation on social accountability. It’s a matter of need: If there is a need, then we will try to meet the need the best we can.
What does the word development mean to you or to this organization?
When you talk about development you should talk about the Khmer translation of “development.” Nobody really looks at what terms Khmer use for development. The word development in Khmer is aa-pee-wat. Watana means progress, but aa-pee means super. So in Khmer development means “super progress.” We use the concept of development in our proposal and our reports, but in real life we use super-progress as a means of reaching the goal.
The word in Pali is Bhavana. In a sense, Bhavana means going to develop Dhamma in the pagoda. When someone goes into the pagoda the donchee says, “I am going to Bhavana.” Bhavana means Dhamma Bhavana, so everyone thinks development means going to the temple to prepare for the next life.
Taking the concept of Bhavana, it means four kinds of principles. One is physical Bhavana or physical development. Second is Sila or moral Bhavana. Number three is Citta Bhavana, which means mental development, and the fourth is Paññ?bhavana, which means wisdom development. In terms of daily life, physical development means economic development, because you have to make yourself grow. Moral development concerns all of social order; you could call it social development. Mental development relates to how you can control and deal with your own emotions. Wisdom development is the concept of education, the concept of intellect, and the concept of IQ. So it forms an integrated or holistic approach to development.
The concept of development that the government now focuses on involves irrigation or infrastructure. It is small fragments, instead of looking at development as a whole concept. We try to avoid that. We try to look at human development not human resource development, because if you look at a human as a resource, then they are like petroleum, and humans are more than petroleum. Human value is in human capacity and human potential. At the same time we have the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. The Buddha represents the individual, so individual benefit is important in any kind of development. He also talks about the Dhamma, which means nature, and he talks about the Sangha, which is the community. So we focus on the community or social needs, while at the same time thinking about the needs of nature. Thus development centers on the four issues around which life revolves. Human beings needs to live in society, but at the same time they should not do harm to nature, as we are now doing.