The precious stupa complex of the sadly disappeared ethnic minority in Pailin was inaugurated last weekend with a vivid Buddhist ceremony after more than a year of restoration work. The 87-year-old stupa atop Phnom Yat, a popular hilltop for locals to relax in Pailin, was repaired and gilded by Pyone Maung Maung, the chairman of the electronic passport company Southeastasianet Technologies.
In 2010, while he was travelling to the border checkpoint in Pailin, about 400 kilometres west of Phnom Penh, he came across the stupa by chance. He recognised that it was constructed in the Burmese style and examined the Burmese language script on it, which told the story of the four families responsible for its construction. At the time, the stupa was cracked and had been overgrown over by small plants.
The restoration project cost almost $US150,000. The inauguration of the stupa coincided with the Cambodian National Culture day on March 3. High-ranking officials from both Cambodia and Burma travelled to Pailin to host the ceremony. The Kola people, the original Burmese inhabitants of the area, were not represented in the proceedings, having disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime.
According to Pyone Maung Maung, during King Rama III’s reign in Thailand (1824-31), people from Myanmar used hundreds of bullock carts to trade in the Pailin region, which was under control of the Kingdom of Siam at the time.
Under the Khmer Rouge, many ethnic minorities from Vietnam, China, Laos and Burma were put to death or fled the country. Pyone Maung Maung restored the stupa in the hope that this complex could bring some of the Burmese back to Pailin. He doesn’t expect that they will come to live at their old place, but they may return to visit the stupa and stop feeling frightened of the region after the tribulations of the past.
Yan Myo Aung Htut, the co-ordinator of the restoration, has rotated among other four Burmese people travelling to Pailin every week to see how Burmese and Cambodian engineers collaborated to remove the small plants and tree roots, to fix the cracks and to gild the stupa’s gold leaves.
“Our main problem was the language when we communicated with Cambodian engineers,” he said. “We can speak English, but they speak Khmer. Language becomes our barrier. We know what we want to do, but they understand what they can do. Sometimes their ideas and our ideas were totally different.”
On the inauguration day, a relic of Buddha was brought from Burma and stored inside the stupa. Housing such relics is the main purpose of bigger stupas.
“The stupa area is 99 per cent done, but we plan to construct a museum and praying hall. We plan to make seats where everybody can relax here too,” Yan Myo Aung Htut said.
The museum will include artifacts and materials that detail the history of the Kola people and how their influence has continued to shape certain aspects of life in Pailin.
Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An said the century-old stupa would become a historical complex and a very important praying hall for everybody. “This is the new outcome of the co-operation between Cambodia and Myanmar,” she said.
Pailin Governor Y Chhean is grateful to his Burmese counterpart for helping to restore the complex. He believes the stupa restoration will help to bring more tourists to his province. He will keep the security because the stupa’s gold gilding.
“People and forces believe, respect and love the stupa, so we will cooperate with each other to protect the stupa. We’ll keep the security guards over there,” he said.
Y Chhean, who used to be the area commander of the Khmer Rouge in this part of Pailin, said he did not know where the Kola people went, but believed they integrated with Khmer people.
“Now, there are no Kola villages left. Maybe those people already integrated with the Khmer. There were many years of war, so we don’t know where these people have gone. Pailin is the like the new village,” he said.
Though those Burmese immigrants have disappeared, their names were recorded in many songs and their words were used to name villages. Their traditional peacock and gem-sift dance also remains part of Pailin culture.