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Memories of prayers whispered at night

Memories of prayers whispered at night

B UDDHIST monk Ven So Mieng left Phnom Penh's Ounnaloam pagoda for the

countryside in the afternoon of April 18, 1975 with only a little rice, a pot

and a kettle.

Four years later, he returned, the only survivor of a band

of 28 monks who had found themselves together under Khmer Rouge rule at a small

Kandal village.

Today, at age 81 and still a venerated monk, he puts his

survival down to his strong faith.

It was a faith which was not easily

worshipped during the years of the strongly anti-religious Khmer

Rouge.

From the moment he was forced out of Ounnaloam Pagoda at the

insistence of Khmer Rouge guerrillas the day after they seized Phnom Penh, Mieng

had to risk his life every time he wanted to pray.

He went to his

birthplace of Prek Tamek in Kandal province, where, after two days, Khmer Rouge

cadre told him he had to "retire" as a monk.

"You have to decide," they

told him. "If you want to stay a monk, you have to go and see Angkar. Or else

you must retire."

The cadre compared monks to birds which perched on a

tree to suck the juice from it.

"The tree will die, so we cannot keep

these people," he was told. "We must kill them all."

Refusing to give up

the monkhood, Mieng - along with 27 other monks who had found their way to the

village - fled to Ksach Kandal Island for five months.

But, reluctantly

deciding that to retire was the best choice, they returned to Prek Tamek, where

Mieng had relatives and friends.

He found that all of the Khmer Rouge

militia in the village were former students of his, some even his grandchildren,

but that meant little.

"You are not our teacher anymore," he says some

told him. "We are all the same. If you don't work, we won't give you food to

eat. Anyone who is stubborn must be killed."

Though aged in his 60s,

Mieng was set to work day after day. He farmed, tended cows and helped to

demolish big houses - symbols of wealth the Khmer Rouge could not abide

by.

Publicly, he gave up religion but privately he remained devoutly

Buddhist.

At night, he would whisper his prayers before he slept. Once,

cadre sneaked up to his house and overheard him. The next morning, they

threatened him with death.

He was spared only when one militia supervisor

- who still had some respect for him - decided he could live.

In 1978,

Mieng, together with 13 relatives and others, were taken from the village and

told they were to be beaten to death.

They awaited their fate, but again

he survived. In an internal Khmer Rouge purge, all the local cadre were killed

by another group of militia from outside, and their prisoners allowed back to

Prek Tamek.

By 1979, when the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled, all the

other 27 monks, along with 20 of his relatives, were dead.

Mieng returned

to Phnom Penh. In 1980, Mieng - who had first become a monk when aged 14 -

formally returned to the monkhood at Ounnaloam Pagoda.

Last year, he was

appointed head monk at the pagoda by King Norodom Sihanouk.

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