The Venerable Heng Monychenda has strong views that Khmers should be driving the
development of Cambodia. Christine Chaumeau talks to the man who founded Buddhism
TWENTY monks walk down a Battambang road, stopping at small houses and giving the
families who live inside a tree. The people kneel in reverence, and the monks tell
them how to plant and care for their new tree.
This is the work of the NGO Buddhism For Development, started by the Venerable Heng
Monychenda, 36, in 1992 to involve monks in community development.
"The villagers are returnees from the border. They are very poor and they have
no land to farm," he explains.
This is Andaung Trach, Battambang province, where "we have had a monk living
since 1995. He set up a kindergarten and a tree nursery.
"In the kindergarten we teach about 100 children between five and six years
The nearby primary school "was built by UNDP/CARERE but it remains empty because
there is no teachers."
The Venerable started the monks' training center in his home town with the support
of the German foundation Konrad Adenauer. Since then 120 monks, mainly from Battambang
and Banteay Meanchey provinces, have been trained in community development.
Over six weeks, they learn everything from how to start a tree nursery or a rice
bank, to giving and receiving talks on Buddhism and ethics, and promise to live within
the monkhood for two years.
"My long term dream is how we can involve 40,000 monks working for the well-being
of the people," says Monychenda.
He joined the monkhood in 1980 in a refugee camp on the Thai border, after his father's
plans to have him join earlier were ruined by the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
During the KR regime, Monychenda, then about 16, was among the mobile youth work
treams sent around the country.
"The names of my family were written in red on the register as 'New People'
[urban people], supposed to be killed one day."
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Monychenda lived by trading between his village,
the Site II refugee camp and Sisophon. He did well: "Cigarette papers were really
expensive at the time. When I finally left to the border camp, I gave $4,000 to my
At the camp, Monychanda saw people "living a life like pigs" and wanted
to help them.
"Every week they were given food and water from the United Nations.
"We taught them English, we trained them. If they were not busy they would have
gone crazy," he says.
"The first goal was to rebuild the people's self-confidence."
Monychenda himself learnt three languages. He was offered the chance to live in Australia
but refused. His cousin took his name and the opportunity.
"When you work with the suffering, your heart is attached and it is difficult
to leave them behind," he says. Even when he received a grant to study community
development in Europe, he made sure he came back.
Now, he is wary of mentioning the key word 'development'. "Development is a
long process. It is impossible to achieve overnight. To make people absorb and practice
the teachings there is no need to speak. It is better to show them."
"You know the [Western] NGOs try to teach, but with 100 NGOs you have 100 different
words and for the past three years Cambodia is still a pilot country with pilot projects,"
According to his ideas, the development initiatives led by the monks is better and
cheaper than the work done by international organizations.
Monychenda has strong feelings about the results achieved by his project in the past
three years, and that of foreign-run ones.
"I read about the Philippines experience, where all the money went on [foreigners']
salaries and left the country. We must not allow the money to go out. We have to
develop ourselves to get this money.
"How much money from UNTAC was actually kept in Cambodia? All the money that
is not spent [on the ground] does not go to Cambodia," he says, even though
this money "belongs to Cambodians".
"All the foreigners will leave the country but our people do not change. When
they leave what will remain: Toyotas, Land Cruisers and Land Rovers? We will say
to them 'thank you for coming'."
"The NGOs evaluate themselves on concrete results but changing behavior is not
concrete. We never know when the people will change their behavior."
The Venerable believes NGOs should change their behavior before it is too late, that
they should help to build up local NGOs as a matter of priority.
"For cost effectivness, the local NGOs are a better alternative. If something
is broken in a project, it is a barang [foreigner] problem. It belongs to the barang,
not to the community."
By developing local NGOs, a Cambodian pride would be developed and a way found to
return self-confidence to the people, he says.
"It shows them that not only foreigners can do well. Otherwise, they think the
only work is that done by foreigners."
Monychenda gives examples of the shortcomings of the overseas NGOs and international
organizations, such the building of schools where the quality is cheap and poor.
"The NGOs use materials that look the same but not of the best quality, so the
buildings will not last. They will break and cost a lot of money. We control our
work ourselves to be sure that the companies use the quality we want," he says.
To him, "the problem is that the UN walks like an elephant. It is slow and when
the elephant goes in the wrong direction, it is slow to change."
But he acknowledges the existence of foreign NGOs is helping Cambodians to open their
minds and make them more aware.
"Without international NGOs, development is impossible, but they should have
"We need the brotherhood of support from international NGOs. [But] it is like
the father with the child, the father should think of the time when the child grows
up. If the father always instructs his child, there is no [self]-help. The child
learns more from experience," he says.