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Wat makes stand in AIDS orphan crisis

Wat makes stand in AIDS orphan crisis

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

HIV/AIDS victims.

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.

In an

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

three months.

"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

Battambang town.

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?"


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