Anyone who knows the 110 Buddhist principles "from top to bottom", says
Venerable Monk Muny Van Saveth, will under-stand that monks should bear the
heavy burden of helping Cambodia's hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect
Princess Rattana Devi.
Van Saveth's stance has proved controversial. Since the
monks in Battambang's Wat Norea began working with AIDS victims they have
experienced a backlash from other clergymen, nuns and elements of the community
for being involved in a topic thought of as obscene.
"Most people in the
community think the monks shouldn't be involved because monks should stay far
from anything to do with sex," says Van Saveth, who disavows the ethereal role.
"Since the third century monks have been involved in community work.
Monks come from the community and still play a big part in peoples' lives," he
says. "We are not outside the community - we are in it, like the fish in
Not all Buddhists feel that way. Until recently the Supreme
Patriarch of Van Saveth's Mohanikay sect, the Venerable Tep Vong, argued that
helping AIDS victims would only encourage immoral behavior in others.
hard line changed last year when, with the encouragement of the Ministry of
Cults and Religion (MCR), Tep Vong went to Bangkok and met Thai monks involved
in the care of people with HIV. Now both of Cambodia's Buddhist sects endorse
working with people with HIV.
An orphan carries a food bowl to the monks at Wat Norea.
Van Saveth's work has impressed the MCR so
much that it has asked him to help establish similar programs in six Battambang
districts. However, among the rank and file of the Buddhist community, the
anti-HIV/AIDS sentiment remains strong.
"This is the kind of message we
should banish," says Princess Rattana Devi. The National Assembly Health
Committee member, along with Funcinpec Minister Mu Sochua, traveled to the small
Wat in Battambang to add royal and political support to the monks.
attempt to banish the negative associations, Wat Norea is hosting a workshop to
construct a three-year "Dharma Restoration" plan. Its aim is to put a halt to
the criticisms of other clergy and encourage their participation in projects to
reduce discrimination against victims of HIV/AIDS, particularly
Established as an NGO in April 1992, the Wat Norea Peaceful
Children (NPC) started with the aim of helping war orphans. By the late 1990s
the monks were confronting the growing problem of children orphaned by a new
war, one with HIV/AIDS. In 1998 they switched their focus to try and cope with
the emerging problem.
NPC's philosophy is to look first to its own
community for support, but Van Saveth is quick to add that international funds
would be most welcome.
Donors plan to spend millions of dollars on
Cambodia's HIV/AIDS epidemic over the next few years. The POLICY Project, which
works on HIV/AIDS issues in 35 countries, is one aid organization trying to tap
the extensive pagoda network. It provided training and a small grant to help NPC
run the Dharma Restoration workshop, one aim of which is developing proposals to
attract some of those funds to the growing problem of AIDS orphans.
Orphans of HIV/AIDS victims await Princess Rattana Devi at Wat Norea April 8.
report released by the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance (Khana) last year estimated
that 30,000 children had already been orphaned by AIDS and that number could
increase to 140,000 by 2005
Of the 51 orphans living in the Wat, 42 were
orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Although he cannot afford to test them, Saveth believes
that around six are HIV positive.
But for these innocent children, losing their parents marks only the
beginning of their troubles. Villagers often fear the children of AIDS victims
and shun them, they become prey to drug abuse, home-lessness, malnutrition and
often drop out of school. The most serious issue, says Van Saveth, is the
trafficking of young girl orphans to nearby Thailand for sex.
faced many cases of orphan trafficking," he says. "In some cases members of the
household sell the children; in other cases people come from outside and cheat
or force them to Thailand for begging, domestic labor or to be used as drug
By those standards 12-year-old Chea Vichet is one of the lucky
ones. He and his younger brother have been living at Wat Norea for the past
"My parents got HIV/AIDS. First my father then my mother,"
he says of his parents' deaths three years ago. Since then his grandmother has
looked after him and his three siblings in their village 35 kilometers from
When caring for them became too much, commune officials
called in the monks. Now Vichet says he hopes to study and become a teacher.
Asked what he would tell people about HIV/AIDS, he simply says, "Please don't
follow my parents."
Children taken in by the Wat are given education,
food and stability with the aim of returning them to relatives in the community
once the monks can address the families' fears. Van Saveth says it is a
difficult process but says there are successes: ten children were returned to
their relatives last year.
The Minister for Women's and Veteran's
Affairs, Mu Sochua, says that rather than experiencing discrimination the
children, with their traditional pagoda haircuts, are given protection in the
community through their association with the revered monks.
50,000 monks are a potentially valuable resource in fighting HIV/AIDS but Sochua
warns that ill-informed monks can do damage.
"People turn to monks when
they are in need and they believe everything the monks tell them. They can
discriminate further against the victims or help to put dignity into people's
lives," she says. "Cambodian people seek the help of the monks when they have no
hope so we need the monks' help because HIV is not the end of your life."
The Princess agrees saying it is essential that Cambodia's pagodas get more
involved in promoting accurate information about HIV/AIDS.
"They have access to all the people and they go to the most remote areas.
Last year my father [Norodom Ranariddh] even put condoms in the gift hampers
that he gave the monks so that they could distribute them in the community," she
It's an approach that appeals to Van Saveth and one that he hopes Cambodia's
other pagodas will adopt.
"The community helps the monks a lot, so why
shouldn't the monks help the community?"