The Venerable Loun Sovath

The Venerable Loun Sovath – Chi Kreng Village.

The Venerable Loun Sovath poses for a picture at a safehouse in Phnom Penh. He has been evicted from his pagoda and refused stay in any pagoda in Phnom Penh, because of his activities as a human rights defender. © Chris Kelly 2011.

“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)

The Venerable Loun Sovath poses for a picture during an interview in Siem Reap province, 2010. © Chris Kelly 2010.

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.

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