KOMPONG SPEU - "You do nothing but damage us. Why don't you come to us and find
the truth?" yelled a very angry woman named Ah Li.
The "truth" has been elusive to local authorities, ministries and journalists
who have tried to find out why hundreds of foreigners recently gathered in the Kompong
Speu outback, barricading themselves behind armed guards under orders to let no-one
The "truth" is Ching Hai - the "Supreme Master"; a Vietnamese
woman with a seductive voice who apparently counts hundreds of thousands of followers
around the world.
"Jesus Christ was a rare individual who visited mankind for the sole purpose
of spiritually uplifting humanity," according to her book The Key of Immediate
Enlightenment. "Buddha and Mohammed were others... others remained anonymous.
One of them is the Supreme Master Ching Hai."
The "truth" is that the Cambodian military leased 31,600 hectares of land
to a company called Tri Star in early 1994, for $4 a hectare and a share of profits
from a flour mill it was supposed to build. Tri Star sub-leased the land to the Ching
Hai sect for an undisclosed amount.
The "truth" is that Ching Hai followers appear to be very hard workers
- they've just about finished building two hotels. They're about to start on a restaurant,
a school and a hospital.
Ching Hai apparently raises money - according to her video and publications - from
her "recent interest" in painting, decorated fans, dresses, songs and jewellery,
among other things. Her magazines show center-page photo spreads of "Master's
New Celestial Clothes," and jewellery, which was described as: "Pure, uncontaminated
and not tempted by mundane things, like the lotus." Typically, photos of her
at events carry captions like: "After the celebration program, Master gives
us an excellent discourse that overwhelms everyone."
Ah Li is one of Ching Hai's followers, and was there when the Supreme Master herself
led 1,200 followers from many different countries to a prayer meeting earlier this
The group - Taiwanese, French, Germans, English, Indonesians, Japanese, Thais and
Singaporeans came for a week to pray, without the knowledge of provincial authorities.
General Meas Sovann, the chief of military development in the Bureau of General Staff,
admitted that the liaison between the Ching Hai group and the local authorities "had
not been so good."
Provincial authorities said that the army itself hadn't been so good in liaising
with them. Other army sources said that the military hadn't been told that there
was to be a religious cult group developing the land.
The security at the site is tight. Visitors require permission from the Ministry
of Defence to get into the area.
At the gate are checkpoints with armed guards and another shelter with Ching Hai
representatives. The Post was asked to wait at the shelter while they informed their
boss that there were journalists visiting. The "boss" was heard over the
walkie-talkie inquiring whether or not the journalists had a camera.
Part of the land had been laid in paths and there were tents set up. Near the checkpoint,
there are some shabby huts belonging to villagers.
About a kilometer inside the compound is the development site. Many more tents had
been set up among the young trees for "technicians" to stay.
The technicians, members of Ching Hai Meditation Association, are all volunteers.
They had offered to come to Cambodia to help set up the projects because the land
is very big and there were only a few professionals," said Ah Li, who had calmed
down after her initial outburst.
"One of Tri Star's bosses is one of our members too, and he wants to help so
that we come," Ah Li said.
The volunteers - again, from many nationalities - stay and work in Cambodia for one
or two months. The land that they are planting is then handed over to villagers who
would take care of the crops, and get paid by Ching Hai, Ah Li said.
"Everybody is free. In Cambodia we don't need visas," she said.
Ah Li said at the moment there were about 80 expatriates in the camp. More would
come when the other projects - including a vegetarian restaurant (all Ching Hai followers
are vegetarian), a hospital and a school - would begin construction next month.
Technicians work hard on the field, at their desks and on the construction site.
They live in their blue plastic tents with considerable facilities and foods. At
the site there is a telephone satelitte dish, a water tank, wells and assorted vegetarian
The two hotels under construction each consist of ten rooms, which will be equipped
with air-conditioners, televisions and bathrooms. They have one floor each, built
on stilts, and look very professional, with green roofs, brown doors and white surrounding
Ah Li said the hotels will be ready to rent out next month. She said everyone could
come to stay here, including businessmen who the company encouraged to come and invest
on the land.
"If many people support us, we will succeed very soon. Then many companies will
come," Ah Li said.
Some companies who have struck deals with the military have cleared land. Sources
say that only three have had approval from the CDC to come, while others are waiting.
When asked about security, Ah Li said: "No problem. God will help us. The problem
is the people who are poor, but if everybody has a job and enough salary to live,
there is no problem."
Tri Star promised to employ villagers, soldiers' families and some of the 43,000
soldiers who will be demobilized in the future. Currently, the company has hired
some locals to work on the construction.
"We never think about the profit. We are here not for business only," Ah
The 31,600 hectares include rice fields farmed by villagers. The occupation has angered
the villagers, who have demanded that local authorities resolve the problem.
Most villagers in number 4 village, Kompong Speu, claimed that they had owned the
land since 1979 and farmed it every year, but said they have no paper proof because
they often had to escape from Khmer Rouge rebels.
Prak Y, one the villagers, told the Post she owns six hectares of rice field and
this year she had already planted her land, but she was stopped by Ching Hai followers
from entering her field.
Chhing Yab, another land owner, said she was worried this year she would have no
rice to feed her family of ten. Other villagers said they had reported the problem
to the village head and he asked them to go on farming as usual, but the company
was still stopping them.
However, villagers said the company told them they would provide compensation for
the land either now or later, if the villagers wanted, and would also give them a
One Ching Hai follower said so far the company has compensated two owners for $2,000
- and then suddenly there were another 150 more villagers who came to squat on the
land, demanding $1,000 each to leave.
The Post's interviews with the villagers found that those living there were insisting
they wanted to continue farming the land, because it had already been planted. They
said the people who had accepted "compensation" were not the members of
the village, and now they ran away.
Chhing Yab said she didn't believe the payment offered by Ching Hai would be enough
for her family.
Prak Y said: "It is up to the authorities where can we live and how we can survive."
A Ching Hai representative said that before the followers arrived to the area there
were only 38 families, now the number had increased to 150 families. They moved in
each day, burned the land, cut trees and asked for compensation, he said.