“We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of contemporary human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefield will then become our temples. We have so much work to do.”
Venerable Preah Maha Ghosananda.
I met the venerable Loun Sovath at a conference in Phnom Penh in August 2009, he was representing members of his community who had been falsely imprisoned because of an ongoing land dispute that had seen more than 175 farming families forced from their land and livelihoods.
He recited a poem and spoke eloquently and intelligently to the crowd about the human rights abuses being inflicted upon his community.
But what drew my attention to him was the fact that he was filming. He filmed everything on his camera phone. I asked the event organizer to introduce me to him, and we spoke briefly, in his very broken English and my very broken Khmer, and we arranged to meet in Chi Kreng a week later.
When I arrived in Chi Kreng, he gave me a tour of his pagoda; he showed me around the different buildings, all of which were covered in beautiful paintings depicting the story of Buddha. He took me to one temple still under construction, and scaled with surprising agility the scaffolding that provided access to the roof and began to trace from memory the outline of a female figure. The young monks watched as he continued to sketch and talk to me at the same time.
The venerable Sovath is first and foremost an artist; he sees the world around him and responds to it through creative expression. The camera was an extension of this creative expression. He explained the background of the land dispute to me; the case is extremely complicated, probably one of the most complicated and convoluted in Cambodia; a wealthy and well connected businessman using influence and bribery to steal land from the families that had farmed it for generations. But it was his reaction to the dispute that was significant to me. He chose to make a documentary. Why would a monk want to make films?
It became apparent that he saw very significant and clear connections between the teachings and precepts of Buddha and the values inherent in what we have termed our human rights. The similarities are striking, and as a monk will preach the Buddhist precepts to his laypeople, so too then could the venerable Sovath naturally speak about human rights. While in his sermons he would preach and recite poetry, he chose a purely visual art form to communicate his ideas about human rights, he chose film. Yet his films are in themselves a kind of visual poetry, interweaving narrative, song and music, and they are composed in a slow, meditative and repetitive form, resembling a visual prayer, a visual fugue of Buddhist and humanist ideas.
When I first met him, there were no NGO’s (other than Licadho) assisting the Chi Kreng community or the venerable Sovath’s attempts to raise awareness; he had taken it upon himself to try to bring the case to the attention of the international community, and by doing so bring about a peaceful resolution to the land dispute and secure the release of the detainees who were being held in pre-trial detention. And so he began on his journey to becoming a Human Rights Defender.
Sovath is combining the teachings of Buddha with a newly adopted role as a Human Rights Defender, he creates videos, cine-poems that highlight human rights abuses in Cambodia. And now for him, the path to enlightenment and the path of a Human Rights Defender are inexorably intertwined, and in many ways the same. His video is a tool for his advocacy, both bearing witness to history and at the same time sharing vital information about the spiraling human rights abuses that have become so prevalent throughout Cambodia.
He now uses social media such as Facebook and his blog, taking all the opportunities he can to speak out for and defend others. In a sense, he is fulfilling the traditional role of the Buddhist monk in Cambodian society, providing moral guidance and spiritual comfort, and acting as a counterpoint to the power and authority of an authoritarian government. However in modern Cambodia, religion now belongs to the government, and the leadership of the Buddhist Sangha is hierarchically a mirror image of the corrupt and oppressive patronage structure of the political party that installed and now controls them. Throughout the time I have known him, I have witnessed repeated attempts by monk police and monk ministers to defrock and arrest Sovath on spurious grounds, always for his outspoken advocacy. After failing to successfully arrest him, Tep Vong, the Great Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, had him forcibly evicted from his home and pagoda of twenty years and warned all the other monks to stay away from him or else suffer the same consequences.
There is a growing moral disintegration within the Cambodian Sangha, concomitant with the mono-directional penetration of power, both economic and political, into the sacred spaces of the pagodas. This is inverting the ideal, mandala pattern of order in which power is concentrated in the centre and emanates outwards. Competing visions of authority are undermining the traditional roles of the religious order, and the corruption of power is irrevocably altering these roles and the perception of the Buddhist Sangha in Cambodia. (Alexandra Kent – Purchasing Power and Pagodas, 2007)
Sovath’s story, which unfolds over the course of three years, is a journey on a dangerous and rocky path. He travels around Cambodia and the world to spread his message, first to New York, then Ireland, Australia and then Canada, speaking out about the injustices committed in Cambodia, inspiring the Khmer diaspora he visits and all the while having to deal with a corrupt and oppressive Sangha in Cambodia that is determined to silence him. Through the venerable’s tireless advocacy work, his profound and inspiring speeches and most importantly his films he has had a huge impact on the political and religious landscape of the country.
Toul Srey Pov – Boeung Kak Lake.
Srey Pov is currently serving a two and a half year prison sentence for ‘disputing authority’ and illegally occupying land, arrested during a peaceful protest on the 22nd of May this year. She was arrested along with 12 other female activists while attending a protest being held by the 94 families who have been arbitrarily excluded from a 12.44 hectare land concession granted to those remaining families at Boeung Kak. Most of those in attendance, and six of the women in prison, including Srey Pov, have already been given land titles, and were attending the protests out of solidarity for those excluded families.
It is a cruel irony that the developer who evicts you from your home should have you arrested and imprisoned for occupying land that rightfully belongs to you. There is little doubt that the courts decision was in reality that of the Municipality, not that of an independent judge.
On a recent visit to the prison, I asked Srey Pov if there was anything we could do for her; it was one of those futile, hopeless questions that we ask when faced with an insurmountable problem that is in the end not our own, our shame is that we cannot share their suffering. Her reply was typical of her character; she needed nothing, she had enough food, but please do what we could for her children, make sure they continued with school and continued their studies, try not to let her imprisonment destroy their futures, as it inevitably could. I could not help but feel that her request was a futile as my question; such is their current situation. There is little hope that the future of all the prisoners’ children will not be seriously harmed if their parents (all 13 women are parents) are not released soon.
Now they spend their days at various actions and peaceful protests around Phnom Penh, outside various ministries and government institutions advocating for their parents release. The trajectory of the Boeung Kak protests is undergoing an evolutionary development from parent to child, passing on, from one generation to another, their fierce activism. It is not too surprising to see that Srey Pov’s daughter has emerged as a kind of leader among this group of young activists, although it is concerning to see how traumatised she is, she is a bright and fragile young person, who does not need to have such responsibilities.
Srey Pov has a fierce and uncompromising intellect; I have heard her ask profound and insightful questions on the difficult relationship between donor countries and Cambodia, questions that, as she is acutely aware, have no easy answers. She has always taken a leading role during protests that can often end in violent confrontations with police and military forces; she is a fearless advocate for her rights, continually strong and persistent, it is amazing to see how deep her reservoir of strength can be.
Over the last two years that I have been filming her and the Boeung Kak community, I have filmed innumerable protests, community and NGO partner meetings, violent evictions, religious ceremonies and press conferences during all of which one cannot help but feel somewhat at the mercy of these clever, media savvy activists. They understand the effectiveness of good media coverage, and the speed by which information can be spread via social networks. (Something that is very new to Cambodia, and must be a cause of concern for the government) The Boeung Kak community are endlessly inventive, original and inspiring in their peaceful protests, no doubt they will be the subject of some future doctoral thesis on (un?)successful peaceful protest tactics, their ideas are an activists handbook in the making.
Srey Pov has been at the frontlines of a battle that has pitched her community of some 4,000 families against a government that is a willing accomplice in the mass forced evictions of its own people, and against a developer that has at its disposal all of the organs of state and brutal military and police forces.
I have chosen to focus on one person out of the many women who make up the Boeung Kak League of Women Fighting for their Housing Rights, specifically because through Srey Pov I can tell the whole story of Boeung Kak. But it should be remembered that any one of these women from the Boeung Kak community could have been the focus of our film, they all share many of the same qualities as Srey Pov, but I saw in her something that set her apart from the others; a formidable intelligence and a profound understanding of their situation, and a pessimistic (and sadly probably realistic) view of their future.
Prak Sopheap – Borei Keila.
Sopheap is probably the bravest person I have ever met. As I was researching this project, we went to visit Toul Sambo, a relocation site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh built to house the HIV+ families who were evicted from Borei Keila. It was during that trip that we first met with Sopheap. She was evicted from her home at Borei Keila when the construction project began, and was then evicted twice more from the temporary accommodation provided by the government. She was one of ten remaining HIV+ families who had been given a verbal promise of a new apartment by the city governor, she was renting a small and dingy room along with three other families. Borei Keila was meant to be a model for how re-development could work, with families being given apartments on-site, but as the process continued, it became apparent that corruption and discrimination was forcing many families with HIV+ members out of the community and to the outskirts of the city.
We explained to Sopheap that we could not help her financially, that we could not intervene, and that we would in all likelihood be a burden to her, rather than a help, we explained that by allowing us to film with her, she may come under pressure from the authorities, or may even be mistreated, or prevented from receiving an apartment, or discriminated against by other families in the community, because of her association with us. She said she understood, and she said that she was ready to sacrifice her own future, if it meant that she could help other Cambodian’s, because in doing so, she could help create a better future for her two children, and for the rest of Cambodia. Widowed by the disease she caught from her husband, she thought only for her children, she spent her days fighting with the corrupt officials and authorities, trying to run a small shop selling sweets at a nearby school while taking care of her two wayward children. Her son was addicted to yamma, a methamphetamine drug that is increasing in popularity in South East Asia. The drug is highly addictive, and has a whole plethora of unsavoury side effects. Her daughter worked in a karaoke bar in order to help pay for food and their daily living, which in Cambodia often means prostitution, and can bring shame on the family. But despite the gruelling hardship, and her life threatening illness; her sense of humour and her rare bravery and strength always inspired those around her.
She was eventually evicted for a fourth time, when her private landlord moved back into the house he was renting to them. As part of the development plan, families eligible for a new apartment had to first destroy their old homes, preventing other families from moving in after they left. Sopheap has been living in a derelict building without any walls, with no running water, no toilet, no electricity and no security. She is essentially homeless. She is surrounded by human filth and the floor floods up to her knees every time it rains. Mosquitoes thrive in the dank and stagnant pools of water that surround her bed, her health is deteriorating.
The authorities have repeatedly threatened her, telling her that if she continues to bring the western film crew with her, she will not receive an apartment, but she tells them that we are just making a film about her living conditions, and not to worry about us. The other families pick on her, and when we talk to her about the threats, she insists that we continue to film.