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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kompong Speu: New home of the Ching Hai cult

Kompong Speu: New home of the Ching Hai cult

KOMPONG SPEU - "You do nothing but damage us. Why don't you come to us and find

the truth?" yelled a very angry woman named Ah Li.

The "truth" has been elusive to local authorities, ministries and journalists

who have tried to find out why hundreds of foreigners recently gathered in the Kompong

Speu outback, barricading themselves behind armed guards under orders to let no-one

enter.

The "truth" is Ching Hai - the "Supreme Master"; a Vietnamese

woman with a seductive voice who apparently counts hundreds of thousands of followers

around the world.

"Jesus Christ was a rare individual who visited mankind for the sole purpose

of spiritually uplifting humanity," according to her book The Key of Immediate

Enlightenment. "Buddha and Mohammed were others... others remained anonymous.

One of them is the Supreme Master Ching Hai."

The "truth" is that the Cambodian military leased 31,600 hectares of land

to a company called Tri Star in early 1994, for $4 a hectare and a share of profits

from a flour mill it was supposed to build. Tri Star sub-leased the land to the Ching

Hai sect for an undisclosed amount.

The "truth" is that Ching Hai followers appear to be very hard workers

- they've just about finished building two hotels. They're about to start on a restaurant,

a school and a hospital.

Ching Hai apparently raises money - according to her video and publications - from

her "recent interest" in painting, decorated fans, dresses, songs and jewellery,

among other things. Her magazines show center-page photo spreads of "Master's

New Celestial Clothes," and jewellery, which was described as: "Pure, uncontaminated

and not tempted by mundane things, like the lotus." Typically, photos of her

at events carry captions like: "After the celebration program, Master gives

us an excellent discourse that overwhelms everyone."

Ah Li is one of Ching Hai's followers, and was there when the Supreme Master herself

led 1,200 followers from many different countries to a prayer meeting earlier this

month.

The group - Taiwanese, French, Germans, English, Indonesians, Japanese, Thais and

Singaporeans came for a week to pray, without the knowledge of provincial authorities.

General Meas Sovann, the chief of military development in the Bureau of General Staff,

admitted that the liaison between the Ching Hai group and the local authorities "had

not been so good."

Provincial authorities said that the army itself hadn't been so good in liaising

with them. Other army sources said that the military hadn't been told that there

was to be a religious cult group developing the land.

The security at the site is tight. Visitors require permission from the Ministry

of Defence to get into the area.

At the gate are checkpoints with armed guards and another shelter with Ching Hai

representatives. The Post was asked to wait at the shelter while they informed their

boss that there were journalists visiting. The "boss" was heard over the

walkie-talkie inquiring whether or not the journalists had a camera.

Part of the land had been laid in paths and there were tents set up. Near the checkpoint,

there are some shabby huts belonging to villagers.

About a kilometer inside the compound is the development site. Many more tents had

been set up among the young trees for "technicians" to stay.

The technicians, members of Ching Hai Meditation Association, are all volunteers.

They had offered to come to Cambodia to help set up the projects because the land

is very big and there were only a few professionals," said Ah Li, who had calmed

down after her initial outburst.

"One of Tri Star's bosses is one of our members too, and he wants to help so

that we come," Ah Li said.

The volunteers - again, from many nationalities - stay and work in Cambodia for one

or two months. The land that they are planting is then handed over to villagers who

would take care of the crops, and get paid by Ching Hai, Ah Li said.

"Everybody is free. In Cambodia we don't need visas," she said.

Ah Li said at the moment there were about 80 expatriates in the camp. More would

come when the other projects - including a vegetarian restaurant (all Ching Hai followers

are vegetarian), a hospital and a school - would begin construction next month.

Technicians work hard on the field, at their desks and on the construction site.

They live in their blue plastic tents with considerable facilities and foods. At

the site there is a telephone satelitte dish, a water tank, wells and assorted vegetarian

food.

The two hotels under construction each consist of ten rooms, which will be equipped

with air-conditioners, televisions and bathrooms. They have one floor each, built

on stilts, and look very professional, with green roofs, brown doors and white surrounding

walls.

Ah Li said the hotels will be ready to rent out next month. She said everyone could

come to stay here, including businessmen who the company encouraged to come and invest

on the land.

"If many people support us, we will succeed very soon. Then many companies will

come," Ah Li said.

Some companies who have struck deals with the military have cleared land. Sources

say that only three have had approval from the CDC to come, while others are waiting.

When asked about security, Ah Li said: "No problem. God will help us. The problem

is the people who are poor, but if everybody has a job and enough salary to live,

there is no problem."

Tri Star promised to employ villagers, soldiers' families and some of the 43,000

soldiers who will be demobilized in the future. Currently, the company has hired

some locals to work on the construction.

"We never think about the profit. We are here not for business only," Ah

Li said.

The 31,600 hectares include rice fields farmed by villagers. The occupation has angered

the villagers, who have demanded that local authorities resolve the problem.

Most villagers in number 4 village, Kompong Speu, claimed that they had owned the

land since 1979 and farmed it every year, but said they have no paper proof because

they often had to escape from Khmer Rouge rebels.

Prak Y, one the villagers, told the Post she owns six hectares of rice field and

this year she had already planted her land, but she was stopped by Ching Hai followers

from entering her field.

Chhing Yab, another land owner, said she was worried this year she would have no

rice to feed her family of ten. Other villagers said they had reported the problem

to the village head and he asked them to go on farming as usual, but the company

was still stopping them.

However, villagers said the company told them they would provide compensation for

the land either now or later, if the villagers wanted, and would also give them a

job.

One Ching Hai follower said so far the company has compensated two owners for $2,000

- and then suddenly there were another 150 more villagers who came to squat on the

land, demanding $1,000 each to leave.

The Post's interviews with the villagers found that those living there were insisting

they wanted to continue farming the land, because it had already been planted. They

said the people who had accepted "compensation" were not the members of

the village, and now they ran away.

Chhing Yab said she didn't believe the payment offered by Ching Hai would be enough

for her family.

Prak Y said: "It is up to the authorities where can we live and how we can survive."

A Ching Hai representative said that before the followers arrived to the area there

were only 38 families, now the number had increased to 150 families. They moved in

each day, burned the land, cut trees and asked for compensation, he said.

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