The Khmer rebelled again in 1837-1839; and in yet another
major uprising in September-October 1840. The Vietnamese were shocked by
the repeated rebellions of these “barbarians” whom they regarded
as ignorant beasts incapable of coordinated action. The Vietnamese called
them “rats and mice” and said, “The Cambodians are
so stupid, we must frighten them. Ordinary moral suasion has no effect.”
The Thai, ensconced with 35,000 soldiers in Batambang, used the insurrection
of 1840 as an opportunity to intervene, and establish suzerainty over Udong,
the Khmer court. According to Thai histories, they viewed this intervention
as a defense of Theravada Buddhism. In 1847, the Thai helped reestablish
a Theravada king, Duang, in Phnom Penh, and reestablish Theravada Buddhism
as the state religion. One record states that King Duang: “leveled
the [Vietnamese] fortifications at Phnom Penh and hauled away the bricks
to build and restore… [seven] Buddhist monasteries near Udong. Broken
Buddha images were recast, and new ones carved. Monks were encouraged to
live in monasteries again, and people were encouraged to respect them.”
[A History of Cambodia, Chandler, quoting an original source]. The return
of the king with regalia and the reestablishment of Theravada Buddhism provided
legitimacy to the king.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Theravada Buddhism in a weakened Kampuchea and Laos received sustenance from the Thai court and Sangha. Thailand was attempting to socialize and assimilate Kampuchea and Laos into their sphere of influence, and to undermine Vietnamese or the new European influence.
In 1855, King Duang invited the Dhammayuttika sect into Cambodia, in order to help spread the reformed, standardized, centralized Thai version of Buddhism throughout Kampuchea. The Dhammayuttika were founded by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in order to strengthen and raise the standard of education of Theravada monks, to withstand the effects western influence at Christian missionary activities. “The coronation of Ang Duang in 1847 also marked the beginning of a rebirth and change for Khmer Buddhism that was only arrested by the impact of western-type modernization after WWII. Paradoxically, the French colonial rule and its secular industrial development goals served as a foil through which the sangha and the symbolic aspects of the Khmer court were revitalized from below. The monks led the people’s passive resistance to Frances ‘civilizing mission’ and succeeded in retaining control over their temple-based school system. Although the process of creating a new governing elite began with the French based secondary school system in the early 20th century, many well intentioned French reformers to ‘modernize’ the country were quickly ignored by the people, monks, and pre-World War II indigenous elites. It was not until after WWII that Cambodian elites in Phnom Penh became westernized and transformed the country form a Buddhist polity into a secular, western-type nation state.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservativism]
King Duong next turned at this time to the French as a counterpoint
to Thai influence, in an effort to secure autonomy and independence from
the Thai and Vietnamese powers. King Duong was open to the French influence,
because of his friendship with a French Catholic missionary, Monseigneur
Jean Claude Miche, whose mission headquarters was located in Udon and who
encouraged the king to resist the Thai and establish connections with the
French. King Duong thought that by making overtures to the French he might
be able to regain control of the Mekong Delta and other land that the French
were controlling in Vietnam.
It was at this time that King Duong sought help from the French to keep the Thai and Vietnamese in check, leading to the French protectorate, and ultimately to the colonization of Cambodia by the French. The Khmer people were largely unaffected by the French protectorate in the early years. The common folk were happy as long as they could have the land, Buddhism, and the king. These were the elements that provided stability in their lives. The problem arose later with the French Protectorate, in their attempt to impose Roman Catholic faith through aggressive missionary activity, repeating the assault on Theravada Buddhism that the Vietnamese had imposed.
With the growing imposition of French control, the Khmer people again rose up in insurrections and rebellions in the late 1800s. In 1867, an ex-monk, Pou Kombo, led a rebellion claiming that he had better right than King Norodom to be king.
Another huge nationwide rebellion, lasting about 18 months broke out in 1885.
“Some monks had opposed the French from the start. Before the uprising of 1885, two monks had preached against the French in the countryside, calling upon Cambodians to defy colonialism in favor of what the French said was a wrong memory of Cambodia’s ancient past. A contemporary French report said: “These two adventurers belong to this category of prophets who, adorned with supernatural influence, dreamed of restoring the Kingdom of Cambodia to its ancient splendor.” Other anti-French monks followed. At one point the monks fielded an army of 5,000 peasants, but they were defeated as much by the royal family as by the French. In 1867, the last Buddhist rebel leader was captured by the French, who cut his head off, mounted it on a slate, and brought it to Phnom Penh for public display.”
“The monks quieted down but they never gave their full support to the French….” [When the War was Over, Elizabeth Becker, p 42]
KHMER LANGUAGE RENAISANCE
Nevertheless, the French did contribute to the sense of Khmer nationalism in a variety of unintended ways. The French “discoveries” and exploration of Angkor helped to begin the reawakening of Khmer nationalism, and ethnic pride and identity. From 1906 onward for the next 50 years, the French began restoring, studying, and recovering Angkorean ruins and history. Under French power the Khmer province of Batamgang which Siam had seized earlier in the century, was resotred to Cambodia. Angkor Wat, in the Batambang Province, was restored to Cambodia in 1906. This was an important milestone in Cambodian Buddhist history, and in the ascendancy of Khmer nationalism. Angkor Wat was the cradle of Khmer civilization and identity. In 1907, great ceremonies of rejoicing were held all across Cambodia, marking restoration of the Batambong Province. The people “thanked the angels” (thevoda) for the return of the district, and local officials assigned to the region came to Phnom Penh to pay homage to the king.
“In 1909 a copy of the Cambodian translation of sacred Buddhist writing, the Tripitaka, was deposited in a monastery on the grounds of Angkor Wat; and for another sixty years Cambodian monarchs frequently visited the site and sponsored religious ceremonies there.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler, p 150]
Modernization in Cambodia moved very slowly, because the
monks, the royalty, and Khmer officials, the people held in most respect,
resisted institutional change. In 1909 automobiles and typewriters were
introduced into Cambodia, speeding up communication and transportation.
“While the Khmer Sangha in western eyes served as a conservative force, it was by no means a dormant or unimaginative institutional opposition to colonialism. The sangha also embarked on its own program of modernization in the first half of the 20th century that developed more rational ways of understanding the teaching of Buddhism. The Dhammayuttika reform movement spurred a renewed orthodoxy and higher academic standards and was in part responsible for a new emphasis on scripture and the study of Pali. The first schools of Pali were opened in Angkor in 1909 and at the Royal Palace Wat in Phnom Penh in 1915, both of which emerged into the Higher School of Pali in 1922. Its goal was to “favor and develop the study of Buddhist theology through a rational teaching of the ancient sacred languages Pali and Sanskrit, and the knowledge indispensable to the understanding and explication of the religious texts.” [Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]
These initiatives led to the opening, beginning in 1933, of Pali elementary schools through the kingdom. By the 1960s, nearly one half of the wat schools taught at least the first three levels of Pali. “These developments coincided with the reform of the wat elementary schools that began in 1924 with a monk teacher-training program in Kampot province. While the French succeeded in supplanting the indigenous Confucian-based school system with secular schools in Vietnam, they were able only to strike a partial compromise with the Buddhist school system in Kampuchea. The Khmer monks retained control over primary education and saw it in their interest to incorporate some western teaching methods and curricula into what became known as “renovated” temple schools. In conjunction with this, the Kampot teacher training program developed into several “Applied Schools for Monks,’” whose purpose was to ‘place at the disposal of the monkhood practical methods of pedagogy oriented to the reform (renovation) of its mode of teaching.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]
The wat schools were not replaced by secular state schools until the 1950s and 1960s.
The Buddhist Institute also served as a vehicle for a budding
Khmer nationalism in the 1930s.
“The development of Khmer Buddhism in the 20th century was also reflected in the increased number of wats and monks in Kampuchea. Although the increase in population was slightly larger, the number of wats increased from approximately 1,000 in 1870 to 2,600 in 1940 to 3,326 in 1969. Of the later figure, only 124 wats and less that 1500 monks belonged to the elite Dhammayuttika sect; which in spite of its small numbers enjoyed the advantage of the royal patronage. Before the 1970-75 civil war, there were slightly more than 65,000 monks and novices in a country of 7 million inhabitants. During the rainy season or period of Kathin, the number of monks in robes approached 100,000. While no statistics are available to us, the number of nuns, or female lay devotees (yay or mae chii) who take the eight precepts shave their heads and wear white robes, was also considerable.”
“The quantative growth and academic orientation of the Khmer Sangha in the 20th century accompanied, critics would say paid for, by a decline in the quality of Buddhist practices in the decades following WWII. Rituals, ceremonies and festivals became increasingly anachronistic and bereft of meaning in the context of westernized cultural and governing elite in the capital. Meditation (vipassana), which had never been a signature of Khmer Buddhism, was not promoted in the Khmer sangha with the same intensity as the Pali language and scripture, now transmitted through the relatively new medium of print. (The Khmer sangha did not begin to use movable type until after WWII). Finally, the Sangha was not entirely immune form the ideological rifts that plagued Khmer society in the 1960s, as some modernist monks took part in the political tumults that led to the society’s rupture in the 1970s.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]
“In the areas of scripture, King Monivong (d 1941)
launched the Tipitaka Commission in 1927 for the purpose of translating
the entire Pali canon into Khmer. Supplementing its own manuscripts holding
s with original texts form Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and the Pali text
society in London, the project commenced in 1929 and continued under the
auspices of the Buddhist Institute, which was founded the following year
in Wat Unnalom. Completed in 1969 under the guidance of Ven Chuon Nath,
the translation comprised 110 volumes between 400 and 800 pages each in
length. Some outside commentators claim it is the first complete translation
of the Singhalese recession of the Tipitaka into another language.”
“Soon after its founding the Buddhist Institute became a pivotal institute in Cambodian cultural and intellectual life. In addition to the Tipitaka project, it published Venerable Chuon Nath’s two-volume Khmer dictionary in 1935 and used the print media to publish and widely disseminate thousands of Buddhist and cultural texts for the people. A sister institute was founded in the Kingdom of Laos.” [“Notes on Rebirth of Khmer Buddhism,” Radical Conservatism]
The Buddhist Institute was the brainchild of the Suzanne Karpeles (d 1969) who encouraged and fostered a quiet renaissance of Khmer, Theravada Buddhism that led and fed the Cambodian independence movement. Karpales was an extraordinary woman whose efforts to develop Buddhism spanned continents.
She was a gifted scholar with three degrees from the University of Paris in Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, when she went to Southeast Asia for further studies.
In 1930, she persuaded the French government to establish the Buddhist Institute in Vientiane, Laos and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For twenty years she acted as General Secretary for both institutes. She will always be remembered in Theravada countries for having initiated and supervised and brought to completion the printing of the Theravada Tripitika in both Pali and in Khmer translation. In France, Karpales was very active in the first French Buddhist Association Les Amis du Boddhisme (Friends of Buddhism) founded by G.C. Lounsberry (an American women) in 1929. This association had strong Theravada leanings, and in 1930s, she organized a series of lectures in Buddhism at Sarbonne University in Paris, as well as publishing books in French, including meditation books.
“She was attached to the Ecole Francaise d’ Extreme Orient in Hanoi, then the worlds finest center of Oreintalism. Karpales came to Phnom Penh to build the royal library into a repository of irreplaceable Buddhist texts and relics and she collected both for safekeeping and to instruct the Cambodian bonzes, or monks, in texts that had long been ignored.” “Her mandate was to reeducate the Buddhist monks in what the French considered their traditional faith and erase much of the ‘superstitious practices’ that had ‘corrupted’ Theravada Buddhism in Indochina. The library established the Buddhist Institute in 1930. The Institute was the only center based in Cambodia that brought in students form other Indochinese colonies, largely the Cambodian minority living in Cochin China [the Mekong Delta, or Kampuchea Krom].”
“These Cambodians form southern Vietnam, the Khmer Krom, became part of Karpele’s larger project to revitalize Cambodian culture, pride, and aspirations. She surveyed the Cambodian minority community in southern Vietnam and led a crusade encouraging Cambodians to remember that the entire Mekong Delta was once their homeland….These Kampuchea Krom immigrants became the most ardent of nationalists in subsequent years, the favorite recruits of both the American CIA and the Khmer Republic.”
“The Buddhist Institute quickly became the focus of a new intellectual life in this new crucial period between world wars. The French built only a minimal, elite system of secular schools in Cambodia. Otherwise, they merely altered the curriculum taught by the monks in the country’s native pagoda schools. The youth in Cambodia were largely taught by monks, who were responsible for the high literacy rate in the country, far higher than in Vietnam, and the Institute easily gained a position as the fullest expression of Buddhist education in Cambodia. It also discouraged Cambodians form traveling to Thailand for further Buddhist education; in Bangkok it was easy for Cambodians to pick up dangerous anti-French, independent ideas from Thai Buddhists.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]
The Buddhist Institute became the first home of anti-colonialism
in Phnom Penh.
“The Buddhists were eminently qualified for their part in brining Cambodians into the modern political era. Under the tutelage of the French, like Karpales they had become some of the few Cambodians introduced to the ideas of the modern world. Importantly, this was said to be accomplished without sacrificing their identity as Khmers. Most of Cambodia’s small aristocracy was conversant in the ways of the French, but they were compromised by their acquiescence to colonial rule….”
“By the twentieth century the monks had extraordinary power, despite their modest appearance. At dawn, the monks appeared with their heads bowed and begged for food outside the village doorways; they helped broker marriages and otherwise dictated behavior in the profound and mundane affairs of village life. The bonzes taught the children, raised the orphans, and set the moral and social standards of the country. N return, the people built their pagodas and monasteries and followed their strictures. The bonzes, who pledged their lives to poverty, filled the pagoda coffers and became the most important source of charity in the country, dispensing food or funds to the poorest of peasants.
“Finally, the Buddhist monks were the only influential Cambodians in a position to question both the French and the King. The monks had attained an independent moral standing in the community not subject to the whims of royal beneficence. Unlike Vietnam and other countries of the Chinese tradition, Cambodia had no powerful mandarin class, only an aristocratic oligarchy that administered the government and whose fortunes were largely controlled by the king. The monks were recognized as a separate group protecting the country’s values and culture. When these holy men began questioning French rule, their doubts struck a deep chord in the country.” “Some monks had opposed the French form the start…” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]
[The monks] “felt French colonialism undermined rather than preserved the Cambodian state, as the French claimed. Buddhist agitators led protests against sending Cambodians to fight for the French in World War I, tearing down recruitment posters in Phnom Penh. When Suzaanne Karpales established her Buddhist Institute it was these dissidents to whom she gave a base of operation. The Institute became home of the first modern anti-colonial agitator in Phnom Penh.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]
Cambodian literature in Khmer-language consisted of Buddhist
texts and 19th century epics. There were no histories, or newspapers as
Cambodian emerged into the 20th century. Literacy in Cambodia was related
to study of Buddhist texts in the temples. Cambodian literary tradition
was identical to Theravada Khmer Buddhist studies.
“Before 1936, in fact, the only Khmer-language periodical, Kambuja Surya (Cambodian Sun) had been published on a monthly basis under the auspices of the French-funded Institute Bouddhique. With rare exceptions, the journal limited itself to printing folk-lore, Buddhist texts, and material concerned with the royal family. Even Cambodian chronicle histories in Khmer were not yet available in print.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler, p160]
[French anti-Thai support Khmer…]
In Phnom Penh, a small French-educated intellectual elite emerged in the 1930s – 1950s, having been educated in Saigon.
The French were suspicious of Thai influence and therefore encouraged Khmer identity in an effort to inspire Khmer nationalism and inoculate them from the subversive anti-French elements of Siam. This enhanced and intensified Buddhist studies and Khmer Buddhist identity.
The Buddhist Institute was the center of this activity.
“The three key channels for Cambodian self-awareness in the 1930s, in fact, were the Lycee Sisowath, the Institute Boddhique, and the newspaper Nagara Vatta, founded in 1936 by Pac Chhoeun and Sim Vac; both men, in their 30s, were soon joined by a young Cambodian judge, born in Vietnam and educated in France, named Son Ngoc Thanh. The three, in turn, were closely associated with the Institute Boddhique, to which Son Ngoc Thanh was later assigned as librarian. This brought them into contact with the leaders of the Cambodian Sangha, with Cambodian intellectuals, and with a small group of French scholars and officials, led by the secretary of the Institute, Suzanne Karpales, who were eager to help with the Cambodian intellectual renaissance.” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler]
Son Ngoc Thanh was Khmer Krom, born and raised in the Mekong Delta. His earliest education was in a Khmer-language pagoda. “He transferred to the French system for his secondary education and went to France for his university studies, which included one year of reading law. As a citizen of a French colony, Cochin China, rather than the Cambodian protectorate, Thanh received and education rare for a Cambodian of that era. He returned to Cochin China and finally settled in Phnom Penh, where he joined the Buddhist Institute shortly after it was founded. Thanks to his education, Thanh became the Institute secretary.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]
The Nagara Vatta newspaper, established in 1936, published
under the auspices of the Buddhist Institute, was the voice of the new Khmer
intellectual renaissance. The word “nagara vatta” means “temple
realm” in Sanskrit, and is a play on the word “Angkor Wat”
which means the same tin Khmer.
The paper saw its mission as to “awaken” the Cambodian people. Son Ngoc Thanh, the Buddhist Institute secretary, was agitating for independence in the Khmer language through the newspaper, reclaiming the culture and preserving the national integrity. It was a “pro-Khmer” paper and promoted Khmer identity and ethnic pride.
In 1937, the paper published 5,000 copies per issue and its readership was undoubtedly even higher. It was certainly read avidly by Buddhist monks throughout the kingdom.
“The newspaper called for seditious behavior but disguised it in religious language. Together Tanh and the Buddhists initiated the first serious discussion against colonialism in Phnom Penh. They were met with censorship and surveillance. Aware that in Burma political Buddhism had become a problem, the French moved quickly to curtail these activities of Phnom Penh’s budding Buddhist nationalists.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]
As it grew more anti-French and anti-colonial, the paper was suppressed in 1942, in circumstances leading to a huge monk-led uprising. More than 30 Cambodians were imprisoned for long sentences following the “Monks Demonstration.” How did it occur? The French had put down Khmer insurrections before. The French and Vietnamese exploited the Khmer, who paid the highest taxes in Indochina. In 1916, perhaps as many as 100,000 Khmer protested the high taxes and marched on Phnom Penh, stunning the French who had imagined that the Khmer were passive, lazy and ignorant, incapable of mass, coordinated action. Again in 1925 a spontaneous uprising in which Khmer villagers killed a French government agent. But the 1942 “Monks DemonstratIon” was unprecedented for the French protectorate.
The Japanese had entered Phnom Penh in 1941 and announced the end of the European hegemony in Asia. The Thai reacted quickly and attacked and seized Batambang province in 1941. Angkor Wat remained in French control. The Japanese became the new colonial power in Cambodian during this time, and left the French to administer the country.
“French military weakness and Japanese sympathy for certain anti-colonial movements – evident throughout southeast Asia by 1942 – had not passed unnoticed among the [Khmer} intellectuals – many of the members of the Sangha – who were associated with the Nagara Vatta and the Institute Boddhique. Between 1940-1942, the paper took on increasingly pro-Japanese and anti-colonial line. During these years, at least 32 issues of the paper were censored. In ten issues the lead editorial was suppressed….” [A History of Cambodia, Chandler]
For the Cambodians, the Thai invasion and seizure of their sovereign land marked the end of their allegiance to the French; it was the breaking point of endurance with the supposed “protection” by the French, who had failed them.
“The French had failed in their basic responsibility to protect Cambodia from its neighbors – the raison d’etre for French colonial rule. The elite woke up from its delusions and saw the French in a severe light. They were receptive when Son Ngoc Thanh of the Buddhist Institute engineered a partnership, bridging the lower-class Buddhists with the elite. He was a rare figure, trusted by the Buddhists who otherwise had few connections with the French-speaking elite of Phnom Penh. The Buddhists were far too traditional. If they spoke a foreign language it was Thai. Their supporters and members were from the lower classes. The students they recruited form the capital for their drive against the French generally came from the polytechnic schools.”
“Thanh had an entrée into the upper strata through the Friendship Association of Sisowath School Alumni [Because of his elite French education]….”
Than helped coax the Friendship Association of the Sisowath School Alumni toward Khmer nationalism.
“The alumni groups began sponsoring the monks to travel around the countryside preaching against French colonialism. The alumni association gave the Buddhists badly needed funds as well as new legitimacy. Joined together, they represented a potent threat to the French, and indirectly, the monarchy, as long as the king supported France. The traditional Buddhists and the modern elite comfortable in European language and politics began to have immediate results. But the elite were very small in numbers, and it fell on the monks to become the visible emblem of revolt and their saffron robes the symbol against French colonialism.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]
This set the stage for the explosion of 1942, known as the
The climax of the confrontation between this movement of Buddhist monks and Khmer aristocracy of Phnom Penh against the French occurred in July 1942. The French closed the Nagara Vatta and arrested the leading monk, Hem Cheav. Venerable Hem Cheav (1898-1943) was an important monk, revered by the peasants and honored by the elite classes of Khmer society. He was a professor at the Ecole Superieure des Pali in Phnom Penh, and had audaciously appealed for Cambodian soldiers to desert from the French colonial army. “He preached nonviolence, but not exclusively, recognizing the formidable impediment of the French army and police in his fight for independence. One of the charges against him, and other monks, was translating seditious materials form Thai.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker]. The French arrested him and another monk Nuon Duong. The French committed sacrilege and desecration by manhandling a monk, refusing to allow him to ceremonially disrobe before incarcerating him, a grotesque violation of Buddhist and Khmer sensibilities.
When Venerable Cheav was arrested, he reportedly said, “Sirs, you can do everything you like here. You are the masters. You can take my life, but my spirit will continue.” On July 20, a crowd of nearly 2,000 people, more than half monks, marched from Phnom Penh’s principal boulevard from behind the royal palace to the French colonial office of the resident superieur, Jean deLeus, near Wat Phnom, and demanded the release of Venerable Hem Cheav. When the French police refused them admittance to the official, the crowd rebelled. The French police attacked the unarmed crowd when they became unruly. Police photographed the demonstrators, and later arrested 200 of them, including Pach Chhoeun, the editor of the recently suppressed Nagara Vatta newspaper, who had led the protest and presented the petition to the French official. Buddhist leader Son Ngoc Thanh went underground and hid in Phnom Penh for several days during the clampdown, the escaped to Batambang, then on to Thailand, eventually making his way to Tokyo. Meanwhile Cheav was defrocked and imprisoned in the infamous, prison island in Vietnam, Poulo Condore, where he died in 1943.
The French continued to inflame the Cambodians Buddhists.
In 1943 the French tried to replace the Khmer alphabet with the Roman one,
as part of a “modernization” campaign. The Sangha and Khmer
intellectuals saw this is an attack on traditional Buddhist and Khmer culture.
On March 9, 1945, the Japanese displaced the French and four
days later King Norodom Sihanouk dissolved the treaties of 1863 and 1884
signed by his grandfather King Norodom, and declared the end of the French
protectorate. When in 1945 the French were weakened at the end of the war,
the Khmer alphabet was restored. The Buddhist lunar calendar was also restored
at this time, replacing the Gregorian calendar that had been imposed by
the French. On July 20, 1945 King Shinok presided over a rally celebrating
the Monks Demonstration, aligning himself with the nationalist and independence
movement of the Buddhist Institute. He was joined by the Buddhist nationalist
leaders Pach Chhoeun who was released from prison; and Son Ngoc Thanh who
had returned to Cambodia form Japan in April, to serve the new government
as Foreign Minister. The Monks Demonstration was established as a national
holiday. Son Ngoc Thanh immediately fell into disfavor when he challenged
King Norodom Shinaok, who therefore became suspicious of him. At the end
of the war in August 1945, Son Ngoc Than became Prime Minister. When the
French returned to control of Cambodia , Thanh was imprisoned as a traitor
(at the request of King Norodom Sihanok). The national holiday of the Monks
Demonstration was immediately abolished.
The Cambodians were determined to have a degree of autonomy and self government. The French agreed to national elections in the following year of 1946.
The Sangha played a role in turning out votes for the Democrat party in the nation’s first election of 1946. The occupying forces in Cambodia were always caught off guard and surprised by the unexpected, sudden popular “eruptions” of mass movement s in Cambodia, failing to recognize the integral role of the Buddhist Sangha that provided cohesion and vitality to the Khmer people.
SAMDECH SANGH CHUON NATH
Samdech Sangh Chon Nath (1883-1969), the Sangharaja or Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, was a leading figure throughout the years of intensifying nationalism, independence, and Khmer pride. He was apparently a Khmer Krom. He assisted the nationalist Khmer movement centered in the Buddhist Institute. He is most famous for writing the Khmer dictionary, printed under the auspices of the Buddhist Institute. The dictionary is considered one of the cornerstones of Khmer culture.
In 1940 he was instrumental in establishing the first Vietnamese Theravada Temple, Bau Quang Temple (Ratana Ramsyarama) in Saigon. The Abbot Venerable Ho Tong (Vansarakkhita) was ordained in Cambodia by Chuon Nath. Samdech Sangh Chuon Nath was a traditionalist. He was Khmer Krom, involved in anti-colonial activities in the 1950s, and against the Vietnamese communists who already occupied Kampuchea Krom. He concealed his Khmer Krom origins, and claimed to be from Preah Trapeang. In 1956 he attended the 6th Sangha Council of Buddhism in Kaba Aya Pagoda in Rangoon as the leader of the Cambodian delegation. MahaGosananda accompanied him. (I believe he was Venerable Gosananda’s upachaya). One testimony says: “Samdech Sangh Chuon Nath always taught us that we have to think from the following basis: Suppose the Cambodian central power was destroyed by our enemies, they did not exist anymore. Hence you had to rebuild to reconstitute our nation from scratch. Take initiative was their motto. Take initiative to solve the village problems through consensus. Take initiative to develop the economy, education and health care. That was the tradition rooted in the collective memory of Preah Trapaing, the sweet home of Khmer freedom fighters.”
“Sanmdech Chon Nath always reminded us to take care by ourselves our village, in every ways of life, especially build and develop our civil society, by organizing ourselves the security, defense, education, economy, public works, health, distribution of land. Act like you are the parallel government. It will be obliged to agree with you if you are well organized. That was the philosophy that Ven Chuon Nath taught.”
His remains are enshrined at Wat Uunalom.
Although suppressed, and underground, the Buddhist-led independence movement continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the French returned and attempted to seize control of power in the wake of WWII. Many of the Buddhists of the Nagara Vatta and Monks Demonstration fled to the provinces s and many eventually cooperated with the Vietnamese communists, becoming party members and fighting from bases in South Vietnam. Other Buddhists fled to the northwest of Cambodia and fought the French with support form the Thais. The Khmer Rough would eventually emerge out of these movements. As the Vietnam War heated up in the 1950s, the French eventually realized the colonial era was over, and withdrew from Southeast Asia. The Americans, fearing the ascendancy of Communisms stepped in and tried to control the region.
The Pentagon conducted a 471 page study of Cambodian in 1959,
entitled Psychological Operations: Cambodia, which noted with dismay or
disgust that the Cambodians were not susceptible to being panicked or stampeded
into mass movement, their horizons being limited to their village, Buddhist
temple, and forest.
The Pentagon noted “the prototype of the successful American might be objectionable because of the connotation of disproportionate wealth. The economic gap is so great that Cambodians have no understanding of the typical American version of “play’.”
“The Cambodians are polite and gentle, and regard angers as ‘madness’.” The military report complained.
“The Buddhist Monks were another target. They could not, unfortunately, be aroused to violence – ‘this would be asking the clergy to be non-Buddhist’ – but ‘psy-warriors’ could play on the fact that ‘the monks are also human’ and try to persuade them that they were hated by the intelligentsia.” [Houk, John [et.al] Psychological Operations: Cambodia: Project PROSYMS (Operating under contract with Department of Army) Washington D.C. USA: Special Operations Research Office, American University (AD-310.384) 1959; ix+471p. maps, biblog, indexs, 26x36cm.]
The convulsions of the 1970s in Cambodia are incomprehensible, inexplicable, defying description.
The actual physical destruction of the Sangha began during the 1970-75 and was conducted not by the Khmer Rough, but by the American saturation bombing, and the monks were increasingly caught in the cross fire between factions in the growing civil war within Cambodia. These factions were not deliberately targeting Buddhism, but the effect was the same: the killing of monks, destruction of temples, libraries, Buddhist heritage. By 1975 when the Khmer Rough came to power, the number of wats had been reduced to 2,800 and while many monks’ lives were lost, many men and boys joined the monkhood in an effort to take refuge and protection from the intensifying and expanding war.
The Khmer Rough had been gathering strength throughout the
1960s and early 70s. When they seized control of Cambodia in 1975, they
purged “feudalists” which included aristocracy, mandarins, landlords
and Buddhist monks. The Khmer Rough utterly devastated and annihilated Buddhism
from the land of Cambodia, for a five year period of genocidal orgy. “Much
of the Buddhist clergy had expected to be part of the revolution, not its
victims. Encouraged by Prince Sihanouk and his appeals from Beijing, many
of the Buddhists of the countryside joined the Khmer Rough. In a repeat
of what had happened during the First Indochina War, the Khmer Rough actively
recruited monks during the first years of the war and treated them with
respect. Monks were named to ceremonial positions in the United Front government
and allowed to continue administering to the faithful in many areas under
Khmer Rough rule. Even when religions was suspended in the late war period,
the Khmer Rough promised it was a temporary emergency measure to allow full
mobilization of the people.”
“With victory, the Khmer Rough immediately attacked the Buddhist clergy, Buddhist pagodas, statuary, relics, libraries, and schools. The destruction was nearly complete, with more devastating consequences for Cambodia than the Chinese attack on Buddhism had been for Tibet.”
“The Khmer Rough murdered the top clergy immediately, enticing the monks to hand themselves over to their executioners with ruses similar to those used to kill off the former military officers of the Lon Nol regime.”
“Those who were not executed were ordered to forfeit their robes and join the people to work in the cooperatives as common filed hands, an order that violate their religious tenets. Those who refused were killed. Many monks were ordered to marry, which prevented them from returning to the clergy. In some areas the Khmer Rough cadre allowed older monks to keep their saffron robes only to be countermanded by the Center.” “Without monks the people could no longer practice their faith, but the Khmer Rough was intent on erasing the faith form the country’s memory. The pagodas, too, became targets of the regime. The nearly 3,000 pagodas in the country were desecrated or destroyed. They were used as stables, granaries, prisons, and execution sites. Statuary were defaced. The sacred literature was burned or shredded.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker, p254.] Older more venerated and educated monks were executed, while younger monks and novices were forced to disrobe and work in the fields.
The Buddhist Patriarch, Samdech Huot Tat, was killed by the
Khmer Rough. A statue of the patriarch which was smashed and thrown into
the Mekong River by the KR, was reassembled and is today on display at Wat
Ounalom.The highest and most recent estimate (1990) indicated that about
60,000 monks were killed and about 5,000 survived by escaping into Vietnam
or Thailand, and becoming refugees.
The Khmer Rough are thought to have completely leveled at least 1,900 wats, mostly in the countryside. Town temples survived because they were used for other purposes.Hang Ngor, author of A Cambodian Odyssey, on which the movie The Killing Fields was based, wrote of his work assignment to destroy the temple of Phum Phnom. The monks were denounced as “parasites” he reported:
“Buddhism was the old religion we were supposed to discard, and Angka was the new ‘religion’ we were supposed to accept. As the rainy season began – normally the time when the youth from the surrounding villages would shave their heads and join the monkhood – soldiers entered the empty wat [at Tonle Bati] and began removing the Buddha statues [in 1975]. Rolling the larger statues end over end, they threw them over the side, dumped them on the ground with heads and hands severed form the bodies, or threw them into the reflecting pools. But they could destroy only the outward signs of our religion, not the beliefs within. And even the, as I noticed with bitter satisfaction, there was one statue they did not destroy. It was the bronze Buddha, still gleaming inside the small Angkorean outbuilding….”
In addition killing monks and destroying the temples and monasteries,
part of the Khmer Buddhist literary patrimony was permanently destroyed.
Libraries were burned. Irreplaceable Buddhist sutras were used as cigarette
paper. The entire library of the Buddhist Institute was destroyed by burning
it, and throwing it into the nearby Mekong River. Among the valuable holdings
stored in the library was ethnographic and literary research of the Commission
des Moeurset Coutumes, documenting classic Khmer cultural customs, manners,
traditions and customs. All across Cambodia, palm-leaf texts which had been
preserved in village temples, were destroyed.
“Through oversight or error, some collections were not damaged or destroyed. In the national library, 343 palm and mulberry leaf manuscripts remained undamaged as well as 185 palm leaf manuscripts stored in the royal palace together with a complete set of the tipitaka. More than 100 palm leaf manuscripts were left undamaged in the museum library along with some 700 volumes of the Tipitaka.” [When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rough Revolution, Elizabeth Becker.]
In 1979, after the overthrow of the Khmer Rough, Buddhism was reintroduced into Cambodia by a delegation of Buddhist monks from Kampuchea Krom in South Vietnam. The Sangha grew in numbers and strength quickly. By 1981 there were 3,000 monks in Cambodia; in 1987, 6,700 monks and by 1990, 10,000 monks.
After 1979 there were still some restrictions on the freedom of Buddhism in Cambodia. For example, only men over age 50 could be ordained. Only four monks were allowed to live in a wat. Since 1988 Buddhism was fully restored. In July 1988, Radio Phnom Penh began broadcasting Buddhist prayers and ceremonies after an absence of 13 years.Then in 1989, Prime Minister Hun Sen officially apologized for his governments past “mistakes” during a ceremony in Kampot Province, where he prostrated before the head monk and asked forgiveness. In April 1990, the National Assembly officially amended the constitution to reestablish Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and the government decreed that “devout Buddhist followers can be ordained as Buddhist monks as they wish.”
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Started: Wed, August 13, B.E.2547,A.D.2003, Last Updated: July 23, 2005