Buddhism and Khmer Rouge Cambodia
19-Jan: 2015


Monk with begging bowl, Wat Preah Prom Nath, Siem Reap.

Shortly after the Khmer Rouge came to power on April 17, 1975, Ieng Sary, the minister of foreign affairs announced there would be freedom of religion in Democratic Kampuchia. A few months later, Khieu Samphan, head of state, claimed in a speech, "Our people have the right to practice whatever religion they like and the right not to practice any religion at all." In actual practice, Buddhism was nearly eradicated during the brief four-year period of Khmer Rouge Cambodia (the fate of Cambodia's Muslim and Christian populations was similarly if not more grim). Shortly after the Khmer Rouge came to power dozens of senior monks were systematically executed. Within days of the revolution the highly respected Venerable Huot Tath was executed by being thrown under a moving bulldozer. Monks were forced to disrobe and pagodas were turned into granaries, pig farms and prisons or simply abandoned and in many cases destroyed. When the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in January of 1979 it is estimated that out of the approximately 60,000 monks before the regime, virtually none remained in robes. Almost all monks of any stature were dead. Rarely had a country's primary religion been all but eradicated by its own people.

Buddhism has been an active presence in Cambodian population zones for 1,500 years. Indian/Brahmanical influences are the dominant ones before the rise of Buddhism. Next to nothing is known of the autochothonic deities and religions that preceded the Hindu/Indianization of Khmer culture. The early history of Buddhism is shadowy if not lost altogether, but during the late Angkorian period Mahayana Buddism became the favored religion of Jayavarman VII (1125-1218), perhaps Cambodia's IMG0686greatest King. Under his patronage tantric Mahayana concepts pervaded the ritual life of the state and evidence suggests that the ancient Indian notion of the enlightened monarch helped shape some of the policies Jayavarman VII used to govern his kingdom.

Jayavarman VII's reign was the apogee of Mahayana Buddism's influence in Cambodia. Perhaps a combination of political turmoil, changing religious tastes and the influences of Bhrahmanism all began to favor the rise of Theravada Buddhism, a tradition that had also had a long history in Cambodia. In any event, Mahayana Buddhism quickly disappeared, never to return, while Therevada gained such an increased foothold that it eventually not only became the state religion but subsisted in a relatively stable and unchanging state for an astonishing seven-hundred years. Theravada Buddhism, once anchored in Cambodian soil "possessed a remarkable facility of assimilation and accretion." 1

After the fall of Angkor, Cambodia could offer little resistance to the frequent incursions of its more powerful neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, though the institutions of Buddhism were little affected. This situation continued until 1863, when ruling King Norodom signed a secret treaty of protection with French officials, effectively inaugurating the colonial era. Initially, the governing French viewed Buddhism as a nihilistic and pacifistic religion offering little threat to the colonial overlords and its practice was allowed to continue with little interference, though this gradually changed in the late 19th Century and even more so in the 20th.

It is perhaps surprising that the most significant movement against French rule, prior to the granting of Cambodian independence in 1953, was the "umbrella war" of 1942, led by monks and so called because of the umbrellas monks often carried on their alms rounds. Anti-colonial sentiments had begun to fester in Cambodia in the late 1900s and in neighboring Vietnam Ho Chi Minh had founded the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. Nationalism as well as Marxist-Leninist thinking were found throughout all colonial nations. On July 20, 1942 over a thousand people, about half of whom were monks, led a protest march in Phnom Penh. As Ian Harris wrote, this event "opened the floodgates... the country moved toward independence on the breaking wave of Buddhist activism and martyrdom." (Harris 2005, 140)

It was natural for communists and nationalists to seek the support of the Buddhist monastic community, since monks were not only greatly respected but also had significant influence on the people as a whole. And monks themselves were among the more educated, if not the most educated strata of society, and not just religious but secular ideas and concerns, too, permeated their lives. Not only this, but the connection between Buddhism and secular power had been inseparable since the time of Jayavarman VII. Under Theravada influence the king was no longer considered an embodiment of divine power, but instead the ideal monarch was one who primarily protected the monastic order. As Harris noted, "Theravada doctrine considers protection of Buddhism to be the indispensable prerequisite for any properly functioning state." (Harris, 2005. 227)

By the 1960s, radical changes had begun to effect the monastic order, changes that would soon find expression and an unfortunately brutal IMG4256outcome in the Khmer Rouge era. Between 1955 and 1967, the population of monks grew from approximately 37,000 to more than 61,000, yet the number of children entering monasteries during this period sharply declined. Schools has begun to be operated outside the traditional pagoda setting and vague ideals of future success in a modern market economy, such as those found in the United States and Europe, began to be longed for. Cambodia's economy, in fact, was heading in anything but a developing direction and young people were underemployed and increasingly disgruntled. The monks ranks swelled due to the large numbers of unemployed men, which not only devalued the spiritual qualities of the monkshood, but provided an ample population of young men with little to do but discuss their grievances.

By the late 1960s, Cambodia's situation was precarious, with multiple influences that would soon bring the situation to a revolutionary boiling point. There was corruption and ineptitude in the existing political order of King Sihanouk, a soon to be American orchestrated coup that would put the superstitious and equally corrupt General Lon Nol in power, the raging Vietnam War that was increasingly spilling into Cambodia (especially in the American's secret bombing of Cambodia during 1972-73 in which 310,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the country), ferment in the monkhood and general population and the beginnings of a full-blown civil war. Cambodia was quickly becoming the next country up for grabs in the wider power-plays between the West and Communist Russia and Mao's China.

. . .

Solath Sar, later to became Pol Pot, was a somewhat quiet and seemingly thoughtful teacher of French literature who became General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchia in 1963. His early careers in life belie the direction he would eventually take his country and leave us with a series of enigmas, not the least of which would be his eventual indifference to the suffering of others in the face of achieving his ideological goals and clinging to power. Solath Sar had himself been a monk. He once claimed he had been a monk for six years, though it is more likely he served as a novice for a year when he was six.

After secondary school, Solath Sar qualified for a technical scholarship and had the privilege of being a student in Paris from 1949 to 1953. His early writings extoll the virtues of the Buddhadharma. In 1952, he visualized a reconstituted Cambodia in which a "democratic regime will bring back the Buddhist moralism because our great leader Buddha was APolPotthe first to have taught (democracy)." He also claimed that the French-backed Cambodian monarchy was "inimical to Buddhism" because it had placed itself "above religion." Solath Sar added:

By contrast, the Buddha, although the son of a king, had left his family home to be a friend to all men, and to teach people to love one another.

Solath Sar came over as a "polite and reasonably cultured man." One of his students remembered him being able to "recite Verlaine and Rimbaud by heart." (Harris 2005, 160) This is the same man who later would preside over a regime that would execute people simply for wearing eye-glasses, a mark of being literate.

When Solath Sar opted for the life of a guerilla soldier he had no difficulty, it seems, renouncing his former values. Yet there were ways in which he and his fellow ideologues pursued goals that can be seen to have Buddhist origins or correspondences, though in the case of the Khmer Rouge, origins that were turned on their head. Buddhism argues that true compassion must be guided by wisdom and that, conversely, it is not possible to have true wisdom without compassion. Perhaps the severing of insight from human caring explains why Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ended up with a system that was simultaneously technically inept and incalculably cruel, that created an collectivised agrarian economy that left people starving, and that eliminated every type of real or imagined enemy through torture and execution.

I have already mentioned the disparity between claims of freedom of religion and actual practice when the Khmer Rouge came to power on April 17, 1975. Ideologically associated with feudalism by the communist victors, Buddhism was one of the "three mountains" that had to be leveled (the other two being imperialsim and reactionary capitalism). Purges of senior monks began almost immediately. Ordinary monks were generally placed in two categories: rural and city monks, called "base" monks and "new" monks. The former were considered less corrupted and more maleable than the latter, and were generally treated less harshly. Monks were forced to defrock and those who refused were quickly executed. Monasteries and temples were of course emptied and put to other uses, including in some cases as prisons and torture centers. Many were simply destroyed.

Some of the Khmer Rouge critiques of the Buddhist orders were not without validity. Ta Mok, one of Pol Pots most notorious commanders was IMG4185also at one time a monk. He argued that Buddhist merit-making "tended to express itself in socially unproductive forms, such as the construction and enhancement of monastery buildings," donations that could be put to far better use building such things as public roads, schools and hospitals (Harris 2005, 161). Even today, when one visits one of the innumerable pagodas that have been restored or built since the Khmer Rouge era one finds scores of impressive and large buildings, newly built and freshly painted, yet empty of people and almost ghostlike. Obviously the wealthy are still expressing their desire for an enhanced future rebirth through patronizing local temple construction.

An interesting critique of the traditional temple system comes from one of Cambodia's most admired monks of the period after the Khmer Rouge, the Venerable Maha Ghosananda. Ghosananda achieved fame for leading peace marches that attempted and finally helped bring about the end of the civil war that lasted for nearly two decades after the fall of the khmer Rouge. Ghosanada argued that monks needed to leave their traditional roles within the confines of the temple and begin administering directly to the suffering of the people. As he explained:

This will be a slow transformation, for many people throughout Asia have been trained to rely on the traditional monkhood. Many Cambodians tell me, "Venerable, monks belong in the temple." It is difficult for them to adjust to this new role, but we monks must answer the increasingly loud cries of suffering. We only need to remember that our temple is with us always. We are our temple. 2

Ghosananda's approach made him a cause cĀŽelebre for Western Buddhist and international peace activists. It seems his message, though still alive in Cambodia, has been little put to practice.

Other Khmer Rouge critiques of Buddhism have included the economic burden the thousands of so-called unproductive monks placed on the country and the misuses and misapplications of the teachings of karma: "Not only were they leeches upon society, but they also taught the doctine of karma, which underpinned the belief in 'natural inequality' and encouraged the laity to accept the status quo (Harris 2005, 163)." The Buddha taught karma as the inevitable results that flowed from one's positive and negative actions (or thoughts) and not as a device for maintaining the caste system that flourished in ancient India, or for all the subequent versions of inequality that have perpetuated themselves since then.

Now we can look at some of the correspondences between Buddhism and Khmer Rouge ideology and practices. It is worth reminding ourselves that the "Buddhist-inspired nationalist movement of earlier decades had been a fertile seedbed for the germination of Khmer communism." (Harris 2005, 229) In other words, the "causes and conditions" - to cite an essence-understanding of Buddhist karma - of the Khmer Rouge phenomena, though of course the product of many "outside" influences, such as communist and Maoist thought, the American involvement in Cambodia, etc., must lie, above all, within Cambodian culture itself. This is not to say that Cambodian culture is more inclined to produce genocidal dictatorships than any other culture, but only that the particular flavors of totalitarianism under the Khmer Rouge lie with indigenous causes and conditions, and that the Khmer Rouge drew upon centuries-old traditional concepts and forms, and rearranged them to suit their vision.

One example of this is the term "wheel of the revolution" where wheel has tradtional Buddhist symbolism of representing the eight-fold path (or right IMG4427view, right intention, right speech, etc., with each represented by a spoke of the wheel), as well as the power of the righteous Buddhist monarch, the chakravartin. In the hands of the Khmer Rouge the wheel of the revolution took on a brutal and collective usage, one that, "never stops and will crush all who place themselves in its path." Another example was the comparing of the population of Khmer Rouge Cambodia to the three parts of the tradtional Buddhist stupa, in which "the progressive masses constititute the base, the core organization the bell, and the party leadership the tip." (Harris 2005, 185)

Another significant example is the role the term "paticcasamnuppada" played in Khmer Rouge party dogma. Paticcasamnuppada (or prattyasamutpda) is a central concept of Buddhism and familiar to any follower of Buddhist faith. On a general level, it refers to the concept that all things arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, and in more specific terms is expressed in the principle of the twelve links of dependent origination, a map of karmic entrapment showing the outcome of following the "three poisons" of passion, aggression and ignorance. The Khmer Rouge translated this same term as "dialectical materialism," the cornerstone concept in the writing of Marx and Engels that political and historical events result from the conflict of social forces which can be interpreted as a series of contradictions and their solutions, and that this conflict is believed to be caused by material needs.

The Khmer Rouge's attempt to create a completely new order perhaps relied more on Buddhist thinking than orthodox Marxist analysis which sees the ideal state as a culmination of linear history, not a return to some primordial or a priori state. The Khmer Rouge's notorious "year zero" was certainly a circular rather than linear notion of time, and as such corresponded more to Buddhist notions of time than Marxist.

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, the Khmer Rouge's hold on the country collapsed and its leaders withdrew into the countryside and "fell back again on a cultural inheritance linked to heroic Buddhist-inspired rebellions of the past." (Harris 2005, 186) Pol Pot and his inner circle lived in what they called Office 87, a compound that resembled a Buddhist forest hermitage. Pol Pot talked of party members as being "ordained." Throughout the Khmer Rouge period party members, like Buddhist monks, were given a new name and a set number of pieces of clothing, in the case of the Khmer Rouge uniform, six pieces, in the case of a monk, seven. In 1979, Pol Pot spoke af wanting to live with a "Buddhist calm mind."

That anyone living in Democratic Kampuchia would possess a "calm mind" is difficult to fathom and it is worth summarizng the salient features and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. A glimpse of the time was given by Rith Pahn, the journalist who lived through the era and who the film The Killing Fields was based on:

In the painful years to come we witnessed the dismantling of our society and the desecration of most all that we cherished. Rigid collectivization, forced labor, and harsh rules controlled every part of our lives; we lost our freedoms, our possessions, our family lives, and our centuries-old Buddhist tradition. The Killing Fields - acres of mass graves and exposed bodies outside nearly every village - were gruesome reminders that our lives depended upon the ability to please our captors. During those dark years, I witnessed some of the most ignoble horrors and unfathomable brutalities ever known to humankind. 3

Practices of the Khmer Rouge included closing the country from the rest of the world, abolishing banking and closing schools, hospitals and factories. The cities were emptied and their inhabitants forced to work in the fields amid grueling conditions they were especially ill-suited to facing. The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless, agrarian society, expressing a kind of collective archetype of the essence of the Khmer, the shadowy "Angkar." Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare, wheras previous yields were only a ton per hectar. Because of Khmer Rouge ineptitude and city dwellers ignorance of rice farming, crops failed and famine ensued. People who were caught foraging for berries, insects or frogs in order to feed themselves were considered practicing "private enterprise" and were executed. The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for twelve hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food, actions that also caused massive deaths.

The Khmer Rouge believed that older people were tainted with capitalism, IMG0627so they separated children from their parents, indoctrinated the children in communism, and taught them torture methods with animals. Children were a "dictatorial instrument of the party" and were given leadership in torture and executions. Research has located 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge in all parts of Cambodia. The estimated death toll is most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

It has now been thirty-six years sinces the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and a decade and a half since the final vestiges of civil war concluded. From a tenuous beginning under the communist Vietnamese, Buddhism has been allowed a reasonably free hand in reestablishing itself as a community and institution, though the state under Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling CPP have been successful in insinuating their influence upon the sangha. The Buddhist community cannot ultimately be considered to have more security and rights than anyone else in a country that is ruled with a large degree of impunity by the powerful and wealthy. Examples exist of monks being beaten for protesting and at least one senior monk, the Venerable Sam Bunthoeun, was assasinated in Phnom Penh, apparently simply because he had become too popular and thus represented a threat to the staus quo. Nevertheless, from near extincition, Khmer Buddhism has gradually adapted and even prospered within the free-market world economy that Cambodia finds itself in. As has been mentioned, impressive temple grounds can be found everywhere, but the real question remains how did the Khmer Rouge era happen in the first place and what legacy has the era left on the people of Cambodia and the institution of Buddhism?

These are questions everyone who comes to Cambodia, even the most IMG4519acasual tourist, finds themselves asking. My most recent answer to these questions came to me through a conversation with a monk, the Venerable Mondal who lives in coutie #12 on the grounds of Wat Proviel in the city of Battambang. "The illness of Cambodia," Mondol told me, "is that people don't trust one another." He explained the Khmer Rouge era in the most simple and understandable of terms: "The best people, the ones who were honest, were the most likely to be killed. Survival favored those who could easily lie; lie about their past, lie about their neighbors, lie that they believed in the Khmer Rouge."

Apparently, young children were fed lies in ways that made them pliable Khmer Rouge accomplices. One example was relayed by Francois Bizot a self-taught ethnologist who was captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge. Bizot describes how a young girl befriended him, giving him the one tender human contact he had while he otherwise lay shackled as he underwent interrogation for being a spy. But gradually, the Khmer Rouge turned the girl against him, so much so that she eventually insisted the soldiers tighten his shackles to increase his suffering. As Jon Swain wrote, "When Bizot told me the story much later, I understood better the unthinking ease with which very young Khmer Rouge soldiers could execute people without mercy and for no reason." 4

When people emerged from the killing fields who could they trust? The Khmer Rouge dissolved back into civilian society along with everyone else. I asked Venerable Mondal if monks, too, had the "illness of mistrust." He agreed that they did, even though as monks they often could lead more trusting lives, but once they disrobe - which typically happens after only a few years - "monks become like everyone else, mistrustful and thinking only of their own self-interest." He added, "Many of the people don't trust monks either. They suspect them of cheating on their vows or of not being sincere in their calling, but simply being monks for the opportunities of food, shelter and education."

I asked Venerable Mondal about the quality of the training monks receive now. "The older monks are seldom qualified to teach the younger ones. They haven't received adequate training themselves," he reported. He added, "How can you teach someone to trust if you can't trust yourself? You do not know what is good." I asked him whether he felt Buddhism was growing stronger in Cambodia or weaker. "In general, monks are not interested in the real teachings of the Buddha. And monks are held in less esteem by the general public because they are always seen as taking and not giving. They stay in the temple and only go out to collect alms, often taking food and money from the very poorest people, who are often the most devout." Mondal's criticism is the same os Maha Ghosananda's, in fact, the same as the original critiques of the Khmer Rouge communists.

Finally I asked Venerable Mondal about the youth of today, what part does Buddhism play in their lives? "The youth really don't care about Buddhism," he replied, "they think it is not for them, that you only need Buddhism when you are over fifty. But the older you are, the less time you have to do good," Mondal lamented.



One of their mottos, in reference to the "new people" (usually urban civilians), was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."


1. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice, by Ian Harris, 2005. Silkworm books, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Page 226.
2. Step by Step, by Maha Ghosananda, 1992. Parallax Press, Berkeley, California. Page 63.
3. Ibid., page ix.
4. River of Time, by Jon Swain, 1995. Vintage. Page 45.




Back to the top.



This is a one of a series of essays under the overall title, Cambodia 2015. - Bill Scheffel

What Makes Something "Cambodian"?

Durian, Food of the Future?

A Morning Walk

Buddhism and Khmer Rouge Cambodia

The Cambodian Market: Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception

Inside the Temple Grounds

Inside the Chinese Shrine

Inside Saigon

Inside Level One

Inside Hanoi

Buddhism and the Khmer Rouge