While there is a growing diversity in the religious beliefs of Cambodians, with religions like Islam and Christianity attracting a growing number of Cambodians, Buddhism is still a major part of the cultural and spiritual practices of the majority of Cambodians. While making offerings to monks and visiting the pagoda on Pchum Ben seem like mandatory practices for many people, the spiritual practices of Buddhism and the lifestyle choices that go along with adherance to Buddha’s teachings are not as common.
According to Pin Bunhak, a 38-year-old monk living in Phnom Penh, Buddhism was thriving in the years after Cambodia gained independance from the French. Pagodas were being built all over the country, and Buddhist principles were permeating the country, largely through the monks who were teaching most of the country’s school-age population at the time.
Along with many other things, Cambodia’s attitude towards Buddhism shifted dramatically during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The Pol Pot regime considered Buddhism to be an instrument of exploitation that was incompatible with their agrarian revolution.
“Buddhists were treated as parasites and leeches sucking blood from other people,” said Sambo Manara, a history lecturer at Royal University of Phnom Penh. “Pol Pot regarded Buddhist practices as a means of destroying their regime and and allowing another group of people to take profits from their achievements and works.”
Pol Pot’s incitement did not wipe out belief in Buddhism, as the role of Buddhism in Cambodian culture remains strong today, but people’s concepts of Buddhist practices were drastically changed.
Sambo Manara says that people were provoked to loathe Buddhist practice and people in the countryside in particular gradually grew to despise the religion. Monks and religious intellectuals were either executed or forcibly expelled from pagodas, and most Buddhist temples and libraries were demolished.
“Monks were disrobed, achar were not permitted and Buddhist people could not chant Buddhist treatises,” explained Sambo Manara. Monks were treated the same everyone else during the regime and they were forced to do manual labor. Uy Cheak, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime, says that uncooperative monks were killed or “forced to work as normal people like me”.
Being forced to abandon Buddhist practices and facing death on a daily basis caused many Cambodians to lose touch with the religion. The Khmer Rouge effectively forced Cambodia’s population to abandon their culture and the spiritual beliefs that had guided the society for generations.
While Buddhism was greatly damaged during this period, Sambo Manara says that Buddhism is still a uniting force for Cambodians, pointing to the recent celebration of Visak Bochea, the birthday of Buddha, which brought hundreds of Cambodians together.