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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A Venerable xplea for changes to the Western way

A Venerable xplea for changes to the Western way

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

for Development.

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,"

he says.

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

clear goals.

"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.



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