In the past, Cambodian people would always go to the pagoda and play traditional games to celebrate the Khmer New Year, but now consuming alcohol and playing cards appear to be the main pastimes during this holiday period.
What explains this big change in the behaviour of people? There are four main factors that contribute to this new trend:
The economic factor: There are many kinds of beer and other alcoholic drinks, both domestic and foreign, that compete in the local marketplace. We see the big billboards hung above the main roads and even on side-streets.
Many of these billboards feature pictures of beer or liquor with film stars, sport stars and other celebrities. For many traditional Cambodians, it is inappropriate for monks, senior government officials and even the general public to pass below these billboards.
We now see these images on the walls of the restaurants and on the roofs of houses, and every television, as well as newspapers and websites.
These beer and alcohol advertisements have great slogans, promoting national pride, bravery, community, great taste and desire. Words or phrases sometimes have meanings similar to the Kingdom’s motto.
Some owners of beer or alcohol companies are the children and relatives of senior government officials. Some senior officials try to encourage the consumption of alcohol whenever they get a chance to make a speech before this Khmer New Year, saying it can help to sustain a high economic growth rate, which in in 2012 was 7.3 per cent.
The religious factor: If we ask Cambodian people if they are Buddhist, 97 per cent will say they are, a fact backed up by the 2008 Census. According to a study by the University of Health Science in 2010, 5,600 people were asked if they had consumed alcohol during the previous 30 days, and 53 per cent answered yes.
Buddhism advises people to avoid sex, alcohol and gambling. This year, during the Khmer New Year holiday, alcohol consumption increased remarkably, and people now prefer to get drunk instead of going to a pagoda. It was mostly women who went to the pagodas, while many men stayed home drinking alcohol and playing cards.
Some young monks collected money from holy men and women, and yet bought and drank alcohol at pagodas during the New Year. We saw some monks go to sing karaoke, and get caught up in sexual scandals and brawls, which affects their religious standing and shakes people’s faith in the Buddhist religion.
Looking at Muslims, we can see that they manage to avoid alcohol and go to their mosques. Why have they been able to live better than Buddhists? We also can see that the government has not strengthened religious faith by widely advertising or respecting the national religion.
Last weekend Prime Minister Hun Sen said at a Koranic recitation contest in the Chaktomuk hall that “Cambodian Muslims doesn’t need alcohol, but Khmer men need it, therefore Khmer men spend at a higher level than Cambodian Muslims, and it may be Khmer men are affected by HIV and AIDS more than Cambodian Muslims”.
The cultural factor: During this year’s new year celebrations, the government and television focused only on the culture of Angkor Wat with youth volunteers.
The government didn’t promote this Khmer New Year celebration everywhere. This new year less people came to play traditional games at Wat Phnom.
The security factor: Due to a feeling of insecurity, people did not dare to go to pagodas or even villages to play games or dance. Sometimes, violence among youth breaks out at those places.
There are not enough police or officials to stop gangs fighting. Many officials are too busy themselves drinking and playing cards in their offices to bother about what’s going on outside.
These four factors influence people to drink alcohol and play cards at home rather than going to pagodas. The government supports alcoholic drinks to support the economy rather than emphasising religion and culture.
Ultimately, this will cause health burdens on the government. For example, according to a Ministry of Interior report in that five-day period over the new year, 66 people died in traffic accidents, an increase from last year.
The report also showed that the main cause of accidents was alcohol abuse. Also, gang violence was on the rise at community dances. People are now getting sick at a younger age with non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes and stomach and liver problems.
Therefore, the government should promote a balance between economic growth, religion, culture, health and social problems.
Government officials should be role models of good behaviour for the people by going to the pagodas on holy days and not going to karaoke clubs or indulging in poor sexual behaviour.
In 2002 Cambodia organised a world Buddhist submit in Phnom Penh, and recently Cambodia hosted the international inter-religion meeting twice. It’s time to get back to the basics.
Tong Soprach is a social-affairs columnist for the Post’s Khmer edition.