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New interview with senior monk explores karma, KR-era trauma

In 1975, a soldier comforts a woman whose relatives were found murdered in a rice field near Phnom Penh. Jean-Jacques Cazaux /AFP
In 1975, a soldier comforts a woman whose relatives were found murdered in a rice field near Phnom Penh. Jean-Jacques Cazaux /AFP

New interview with senior monk explores karma, KR-era trauma

In a newly published interview on Khmer Rouge-era trauma, the chief monk of Phnom Penh’s Wat Lanka, Sao Chanthol, explores themes of reconciliation – while also tussling with the notion of whether there was a karmic “cause and effect” that could have led to people’s suffering.

The new interview was included in the second issue of Cambodia’s Hidden Scars – an update to an earlier 2011 Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) monograph centred on the theme of coping with trauma.

The publication reiterates the last edition’s critiques of the mental health system, with DC-Cam director Youk Chhang yesterday saying the new edition was prompted by a belief that Cambodia “hasn’t made much improvement” in terms of mental healthIn the new interview, Chanthol calls for reconciliation between victims and former Khmer Rouge cadres.

“Reconciliation is the principle that ends the anger in the minds . . . Reconciliation leads to peace among everyone in society and is a way of avoiding revenge,” he answered.

Moving on to the Buddhist concept of karma and influence of past lives on the present, Chanthol also refused to rule out the possibility that Khmer Rouge victims were in some way responsible for their treatment. “I cannot reach a firm conclusion on whether what the victims suffered during Khmer Rouge regime [1975-1979] was their Sanchita [karma] . . . Yet, I would like to clarify again that everything happens based on a process of cause and effect,” Chanthol said.

Yim Sotheary, a trauma psychiatrist who identifies as a Buddhist, said this position is “not scientifically based”, while acknowledging the emotional support deep religious belief can give to survivors. However, she said, this line of reasoning could upset traumatised patients. “I would never say that to one of my clients,” she said.

The new edition of the monograph also includes Inger Agger’s 2015 article Transcultural Psychiatry, in which she identifies Buddhism as a legitimate coping mechanism for victims, but warns that Western scholars must begin analysing trauma through Cambodians’ own cultural perspectives. “Over the last 20 years, Buddhism has gradually reemerged, and many Cambodians pin their hopes on Buddhism helping them to cope with the past and restore ‘moral order’,” she wrote.

Noting that trauma didn’t end with the regime, she also maintains the death of loved ones is a source of continued daily disturbance because “it is widely believed that the spirits of those who die a violent death may be unable to find peace”.

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