As the number of Cambodians migrating to neighbouring countries in search of economic opportunities continues to increase, the number of children sent to Buddhist monasteries is also increasing, with most of them the children of parents who have headed to Thailand for jobs.

A recent poignant scene which was widely circulated on social media, saw a young novice monk crying as he hugged his mother goodbye before she left for Thailand on June 1.

The footage was shot at the Serey Vathanaram Pagoda in Pursat province’s Phnov village, in Bakan district’s Snam Preah commune.

With more than one million Cambodians now working in Thailand, the tearful scene was just one of many.

Venerable Ril Nai, head of monks at the Serey Vathanaram Pagoda, told The Post today that the young novice monk in the video is named Ny Rithy, just ten years old, he is from Boeung Bot Kandaol commune in Bakan district. His father is already working in Thailand. 

Fortunately for Rithy, this story had a happy ending. After seeing the emotional footage, local NGO Merk Chheu offered a job to his mother just before she returned to Thailand.

According to Nai, there are six young novice monks at his pagoda, all from similar backgrounds. He explained that while living at the pagoda, they learn at primary school in the morning, and then study Buddhist teachings in the afternoons. Their evenings are spent on English classes.

“Their living expenses are covered by the alms I collect from local Buddhists,” he added.

Young novice monks study together at Banteay Meanchey province’s Srah Kandal Kchas Temple. More than 200 young monks study there. Supplied

The Neang Khmao Temple, in Rovieng commune of Takeo province’s Samrong district, also sees many young boys coming to get ordained. At present, the temple is home to 415 novice monks, with another 38 set to join them in the near future. 

Most of them are orphans or have parents who migrated to Thailand, said Venerable Than Bunsong, a monk at the temple.

“They come to get ordained because they are from poor families who live in remote areas and do not have the opportunity to study. They depend on the pagoda for a chance at an education, so some of them become monks,” he added.

Bunsong was unsure exactly how many of the young monks’ parents had migrated, but believed there were many such cases.

He added that there were also children there who had been brought to the pagoda after the divorce of their parents.

At Banteay Meanchey province’s Srah Kandal Kchas Temple, in Preah Neth Preah district, more than 200 novice monks receive an education at the pagoda, as well as the nearby primary and secondary schools.

Pagoda head Venerable Chan Sochun confirmed that many of their parents are currently working in Thailand.

He explained that the Visakha of Hope Orphanage was recently established nearby, and houses more than 100 children.

The orphanage was founded by Minister of Interior Sar Sokha, on land provided by the pagoda. The children at the centre learn computer skills, and also attend nearby schools. They also receive religious teaching on morality. 

Cambodians have been migrating to work in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia for many years, and this shows no signs of decreasing, said Moeun Tola, director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL). 

“The migration of Cambodians for work abroad has not fallen, but increased. They head to Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and China. Recently, more than 600 Cambodians were deported from Thailand due to a lack of legal documentation,” he added.

He explained that the driving forces behind the migrations were a lack of domestic jobs or salaries which are not high enough to service debt.

This forces a large number of workers to migrate, some with valid documents and some without, he said. 

Chhort Bunthang, a research fellow at the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC), explained that pagodas have provided education since ancient times. In addition, they once served as medical clinics.

He noted that many pagodas are now responsible for social work, due to a rapidly increasing population, and the problems that accompany it.

This means pagodas are now taking on a non-traditional responsibility: accepting orphans or children whose parents have migrated.

He urged the formation of an inter-ministerial group to ease the burden on the pagodas and temples.

“When children without parents or those whose parents have migrated to find work, who can help them? Yes, they can depend on the pagoda, but it is not the traditional duty of the monks. In my opinion, it should be the responsibility of a government institution,” he said.