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Prisoners enjoy festival rice cakes

EVEN prisoners benefited from this year’s Pchum Ben festival honouring the dead in Battambang province.

Thanks to the generosity of spirit of one woman, Sek Sarom, hundreds of volunteers from Battambang’s Dhammayietra Centre, NGOs, villages and Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University collected rice cakes left as offerings from about 120 pagodas around the province’s five districts at the weekend.

They had a busy few days leading up to Saturday’s distribution of the rice cakes to prisoners at Battambang Prison, gathering at a school to build 10 giant barbecues from donated bricks, and using gifts of charcoal and bamboo sticks to grill the cakes overnight.

Helpers manage to grill about 1000 rice cakes, which were driven the next morning in motorbike-drawn carts to the prison, explained Sek Sarom, who started the project in 2000 when she was a student at the Dhammayietra centre for peace studies and meditation.

The idea was sparked by her volunteer work as a language tutor to inmates at Battambang prison, she said.

“Normally during the Pchum Ben festival, prisoners wait for their family members to come and visit, but most of them are too busy to come. We stand in as their family to offer them rice cakes.”

This is Cambodia’s only scheme to aid prisoners during the Pchum Ben festival, but the idea may well spread to other provinces.

But at first, Sarom said the scheme attracted plenty of criticism, even from Buddhist monks. “People wondered why we sent food to thieves, robbers, and other bad people. But now they don’t say anything. Some pagodas now help to grill rice cakes for us and even give us a call if we forget to pick them up.”

About 1200 prisoners were given cakes this year, including 50 women.

Sek Sarom carries on this task because she feels pity for the prisoners, who are an unloved and largely forgotten section of society, she said.

And this year prisoners got extra gifts of comfort from the effort, Sek Sarom explained. “We have a plan to add instant noodles and soap into the care packages.”

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