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Top monks disagree on role in fighting AIDS

Top monks disagree on role in fighting AIDS

Mohanikay's Tep Vong ... "If we help sick people then we will only encourage

them not to be afraid of catching the virus..."

H
ealth experts are united in the belief that Cambodia is facing a crisis with

HIV and AIDS. However there has been a reluctance among the country's monks - Cambodia's

traditional teachers and healers - to become involved. Stephen O'Connell and
Chea Sotheacheath talked to the Supreme Patriarchs of the country's two Buddhist

sects about their attitude to HIV/AIDS education and treatment - and found markedly

differing views.

CAMBODIA'S top Buddhist monk, the Venerable Samdech Tep Vong, Supreme Patriarch of

the majority Mohanikay sect, believes the Government's figures on HIV prevalence

have been highly inflated in an effort to embarrass the country.

"The Ministry of Health (MoH) reports a high number of people have HIV, but

I think the number is not more than 30,000," said Vong, adding that he felt

the MoH's figures were high to discredit the leaders of Cambodia. "Some politicians

use this opportunity [the HIV/AIDS epidemic] to gain benefit," he said.

Vong, who lives at Wat Ounalom, told the Post he visited Phnom Penh's Russian Hospital

and discovered only 60 patients with AIDS, and he found just 20 patients at another

area hospital. "I believe the MoH figures are not true," he said.

According to official figures obtained from the 1999 HIV Sentinel Surveillance survey,

it is estimated that some 170,000 Cambodian are infected with HIV, the virus that

causes AIDS.

Vong's comments come in the wake of a conference held late last month in Phnom Penh.

The three-day conference was attended by Thai, American, and Cambodian monks, as

well as health officials and NGO workers. They met to educate Cambodian monks about

HIV/AIDS and to discuss what role Cambodia's monks could play in fighting the epidemic.

Vong made only a brief appearance at the conference. "I believe the more people

who attend the meeting, the more people will tell the world Cambodia is not good.

As long as the Government has AIDS workshops, they will only discredit Cambodia's

monks, women, and society," said Vong.

He does not believe the countries 50,000 monks should play an immediate role in combating

the spread of HIV.

Vong said the Government should cease publishing and broadcasting information about

HIV/AIDS. "It is better to clean out or cut off the playboys, adulteresses,

and brothel owners. This will decrease AIDS," he said. Vong believes the time

has come for harsher action.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen gave us lessons," said Vong. "He collected

weapons because they killed a lot of people and destroyed them publicly. He cracked

down on illegal logging, sending troops into the forest to arrest people and burn

sawmills down publicly. And he also destroyed many tons of marijuana in Kampot and

Koh Kong."

Vong said he thinks similar tactics are needed in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

"The Government should crack down on the brothels, broadcasting their destruction

publicly."

Vong does not believe monks should play too direct a role in teaching how to prevent

HIV transmission. He said he is familiar with programs in Thailand where monks promote

AIDS awareness, but he sees some potential pitfalls.

He cited a case where a Thai monk promoting AIDS awareness became violent because

he came in close contact with women in the course of his work. "[The monk] raped

and killed a woman," said Vong.

Nor does Vong believe monks should be used to help people sick with AIDS at home.

"If we help sick people then we will only encourage them not to be afraid of

catching the virus. They will think 'If I get the virus then I will get support',"

said Vong. "If you support the people with AIDS then we openly broadcast to

the world we support AIDS."

"It is the mistake of the people who get AIDS," Vong said. "They do

not have good morals. Everyone should unite and punish the people who have lost their

good morals."

Vong said that the best time for the monks to get involved would be after a crackdown

against the brothels, traffickers, "playboys", and prostitutes. Once society

was rid of these problems, then the monks could go out and teach people not to allow

for their return, he said.

The Venerable Samdech Sanghareach Bour Kry, Supreme Patriarch of the smaller Thommayuth

sect, who resides at Wat Botum Videi, attended only the opening and closing ceremonies

of the May AIDS conference. But he said the monks who attended the entire conference

were surprised by what they learned. "The monks now take [HIV/AIDS] more seriously,"

he said.

Kry told the Post he has not received any specific assignment from the MoH apart

from a suggestion that monks should help with education about the dangers of HIV.

He believes monks have a duty to help stop the spread of disease and "to give

moral support to the sick [with AIDS] so they can die peacefully - even though they

have committed a bad thing".

Kry said people in the countryside still do not believe AIDS can kill and he encourages

the Government to increase efforts to educate the public.

He also believes monks need to be taught about HIV prevention so they can teach others.

But Kry said it would be difficult because monks should not talk too explicitly about

sex, or about condom use. However, they could use "other words" that protect

the dignity of the monks but still allow people to understand, he said.

Kry said he is not opposed to monks being involved in the campaign against HIV/AIDS,

but they will need financial support from NGOs and better education about the disease.

Kry thinks it will be next to impossible to close down the brothels. "It is

hard to use power or force to suppress the passions of the people," he said.

"The best way is through education. Teach people the dangers and they will be

afraid to play in the brothels if they want to have a long life."

Thommayuth's Bour Kry ... monks have a duty to help stop the spread of AIDS

and "to give moral support to the sick so they can die peacefully..."

The monks, said Kry, can explain to people the dangers and teach about HIV transmission

in a Buddhist way. "The subject should be mixed with Buddhist sermons - and

every monk has to do that."

Kry does not believe the Government should hide any information about the severity

of the HIV/AIDS problem from the world. "The more people know, the more help

will come."

Dr Tia Phalla, Secretary General of the National AIDS Authority, is confident that

the May conference was a step forward in tapping the potential of Buddhist monks

to educate Cambodians about HIV/AIDS.

"Through the conference we were very encouraged to see the understanding of

the monks about HIV/AIDS. And they are convinced that HIV/AIDS is one of the social

issues that monks should be involved - this is a complete change from their previous

complacency," said Phalla.

The monks visited hospitals and talked with AIDS patients and are now more aware

of the social and national security dimensions of HIV/AIDS, he said.

Phalla hopes in the future their will be further support to enable monks to implement

education and awareness programs back at their pagodas.

"We have the green light to allow the Buddhist monks to work with AIDS ...The

Dharma has nothing [against] people with HIV/AIDS. The Dharma, where the monks are

involved, can also be used to promote social values, to decrease or wipe out discrimination

of people with HIV/AIDS with compassion," said Phalla.

He said until now the attitude among many monks towards people with HIV/AIDS was:

"This is your sin. You need to suffer. As monks we can't help you because of

your bad behavior."

Phalla said this is an opportunity for monks to promote good social behavior and

to relieve the pain and suffering of HIV/AIDS victims. "It is a Buddhist ethic

that monks should provide support to those affected people," he said.

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