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Former senior Wat Damnak monk eyes future in politics

Somnieng Hoeurn retired as the deputy head at Siem Reap’s Wat Damnak last week
Somnieng Hoeurn retired as the deputy head at Siem Reap’s Wat Damnak last week. Nicky Sullivan

Former senior Wat Damnak monk eyes future in politics

After retiring from the monkhood, Somnieng Hoeurn wants to do good as a secular man – even though that means making mistakes

It’s not often that someone looks forward to making mistakes, but Somnieng Hoeurn is no ordinary man. After 19 years as a monk, the 35-year-old Harvard graduate retired last week as deputy head at Siem Reap’s Wat Damnak. 

A secular man again, with the right to make mistakes and be seen to make mistakes, he’s positively excited by this new liberty. This is because he plans to spend the next 45 years of his life devoted to creating lasting change in Cambodian political culture, and to do that he needs to fall into the same traps that trip us all up.

“As a man I will make a lot of mistakes, and I will learn a lot from them,” he said. 

“Before, when I said things as a monk, people would say: ‘He only says that because he’s a monk.’ Now I will be able to say I have done it, have lived life and made it, and this way I can become a more powerful tool. Not because I’m a monk, but because I’m a man.” 

Hoeurn is hailed as a passionate advocate for education, and his time at Wat Damnak was defined by the institutional changes he brought, the establishment of the Life & Hope Association – which every year provides education and training for up to 2,000 students, principally women and girls – and by the relationships he built with outside entities.

One of those is the Centre for Khmer Studies, whose former executive director, Michael Sullivan, worked with Hoeurn for three years. 

“He works with grace, humour and aptitude,” said Sullivan. “Somnieng is a unique individual with a tremendous capacity for understanding the specific needs of others. He has two ears and one mouth and uses them in that ratio to great effect.” 

Hoeurn’s life is a demonstration of how difficulty can be transformed into a motor for positive change. He was born near Dom Dek in 1978, and his alcoholic and violent father abandoned his family while Hoeurn was still barely a toddler.

When his mother subsequently remarried, the 3-year-old was moved out to another family who raised him, in essence, as an unpaid and emotionally neglected servant. 

They worked hard to shred the remaining ties he had with his mother, so when Hoeurn was seriously injured in a grenade attack at the age of 13, he was shocked when he woke in hospital to find her sitting patiently beside his bed waiting for him to come around. 

“I never wanted to see her before then. I would run away from her because I was told that she was bad,” he said. 

Released from hospital, Hoeurn moved back home with his mother, where they rebuilt their bond. One of the first things he did on his retirement was go home to see her, and touch her again after 19 years. 

“I slept next to her, holding her hand,” he said with evident relief. “As a monk, I could not touch my mother, sleep in the same house or eat with her, hold her. 

“I needed that love so much. This is why I always say you have to feed the children with so much love. Don’t just give them food, they need the food of love the most.” 

After battling hard to win his high school diploma, which he finally did after persuading his mother to allow him to move to Siem Reap and join Wat Damnak in 1997, Hoeurn went on to excel. A Bachelor of Arts in NGO Management in 2010 was followed in 2012 with a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. 

But his skills also lie in the personal development gained as a monk – and a realisation that came to him in 1998 has defined his approach ever since. Reading about the Buddha, Hoeurn fell across an axiom to the effect that we are known by our actions, not by our birth. 

“I realised that even though I was from a poor family, it doesn’t mean I’m an outcast. By my actions, I can earn the right to be a noble. 

“By your actions are you known, so I changed.” 

Two years later, at the age of 20, he was voted in as a senior monk and the values he has earned are part of what he shares with the students at Life & Hope Association, and with those he encounters.

“You can lose skills if you don’t practise them, but with the right values, they will always be there to motivate them.

“We tell the students that until now others made their choices for them. But with education, they can make their own choices. They can decide whether to say yes or no.”

Released from his duties at the pagoda, Hoeurn now wants to broaden his reach and serve as a tool for enabling Cambodia’s leaders to effect positive change in the Kingdom.  

“We need the right political leadership – leaders who can bring people together, gently, with a big soul, education, compassion and understanding,” he said. “We have a lot of people with good hearts and the right spirit, but do we have the people with the right capacity? 

“It is the biggest problem that we face today.” 

He worries that his own naivety may expose him to being cheated once he starts to make his way in the outside world, but also that it could be harder for him to get his message across too. 

“In the temple, it’s easier because people come there looking for the truth. But in the real world people are not necessarily searching for that. How can I deal with that? That will be challenging I think,” he said.

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