by Ly Sok-Kheang
I would like to share my opinion about Im Chaem’s recent conversion to Christianity and its role in Cambodia’s ongoing peace-making process. In Anlong Veng, where many former Khmer Rouge cadre live, religion plays a vital role in this peace-making process. More generally, for most Cambodians religion provides each individual with peace of mind: it helps him or her heal, to forgive his or her former adversaries, and to reconcile with the past.
Theravada Buddhism is Cambodia’s dominant religion. For some however, Theravada Buddhism is undoubtedly insufficient in providing peace of mind. As such, these people tend to seek other sources of religious orientation, namely Christianity. Numerous Cambodians have converted to Christianity including some infamous individuals, such as Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, and Im Chaem, former district chief of Preah Net Preah, who was a suspect in Case 004 at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
As a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge movement, many of Anlong Veng’s residents have been at a psychological crossroad for peace of mind since Anlong Veng’s final reintegration into the Royal Government of Cambodia 20 years ago. Approximately 10 years before this, Anlong Veng faced a turning point with the reintroduction of Buddhism. This stood in stark contrast to KR policies during its ruling (1975-1979), which banned religion and targeted religious figures as some of the first people to be systematically murdered once the regime came to power. Democratic Kampuchea (DK), the official name of the Khmer Rouge movement, probed Cambodians’ minds and souls about religion and faith, particularly Buddhism.
The DK regime sought to dismantle religion from its revolutionary “utopia”. The regime strictly prohibited Cambodians from practising any reactionary religions. Monks were forced to disrobe, and pagodas were transformed into prisons and torture facilities in a cruel, calculated mockery of religious belief. The DK Constitution stipulated: “Reactionary religions which are detrimental to Democratic Kampuchea and the Kampuchean people are absolutely forbidden.”
Instead of giving a clear interpretation of the precise meaning of “reactionary religions”, party and government officials interpreted it as they saw fit. Yet, the DK’s failure in purging religion from Cambodian society proves how religion cannot simply be cut off overnight. Merely because the government in power at a given time forbids religion and religious practices does not mean religion is destroyed. It does not cease to exist.
The KR was determined not only to prohibit religion but to destroy and dig out the roots of the Buddhist monastic system (as well as Islam and Christianity) during its rule. Considering how the communist regime perceived religion as a form of imperialistic oppression, some former KR members appear to be in an awkward position in realigning themselves with the Buddhist monastic system. As such, looking for a new, different religion appears to be both necessary and practical.
Although the DK also suppressed Christianity, it had fewer followers and physical structures, so Christianity was not targeted in the same way as Buddhism because it was not a visible community then. Additionally, a former KR cadre may feel that Christianity is more comforting than Buddhism, given that the Buddhist doctrine is more about “do good, receive good; do bad, receive bad”. For someone like Duch, Christianity’s appeal lies in its teaching that salvation can be achieved by repenting one’s sin. This system provides an escape from the Buddhist teaching of retributive life cycles.
A certain religion’s predominance in a society usually results in children becoming indoctrinated into said religion at birth. Nevertheless, not everyone believes in the same religion their entire life. For some, the choice may come down to convenience and the aching desire to feel less guilt. Im Chaem was born to a predominantly Buddhist society, but changed her long-held belief from Buddhism to Christianity when she converted on November 6, 2017, according to media reports.
Before her conversion, Im Chaem conducted the construction of a Buddhist hall in 2002 and a pagoda in O’Angre village was subsequently established. In her capacity as former chief of Trapeang Tav commune, Im Chaem mobilised the masses. The pagoda functions well, and gives people the opportunity to pay homage to their ancestors with offerings to the monks and the lighting of incense sticks as a form of dedication to loved ones.
If conversions like Im Chaem’s are successful, it raises unsettling questions about the role of Buddhist monastic systems in assisting those in need of emotional, psychological, and material support. For example, Im Chaem’s son was so ill that he was sent to a hospital in Battambang province. No one could help but a Christian organisation, which paid all the medical costs. Are there any other organisations that can help the critically ill? Should there be? Is there any way to create such organisations? These are crucial questions that need to be examined.
This seems to put Buddhism in a position to review what its monks and system has done and what needs to be or should be done. According to Cambodia’s Constitution, Buddhism is the state religion. But every citizen shall exercise their full right to belief: “freedom of religious belief and worship shall be guaranteed by the State, on condition that such freedom does not affect other religious beliefs or violate public order and security”.
Indeed, Buddhism plays a significant role in helping most KR survivors reconcile with the past. However, its more effective role needs to be extensively and comprehensively reviewed. Historically, Buddhism nurtured peace and security in Cambodia with its nonviolent practices. Lately, the revival of Buddhism in Anlong Veng has demonstrated the necessity to reintegrate Anlong Veng’s residents into a wider national folk, in areas of both socio-political and religious identity.
So far, Christianity has converted many people in both urban and rural areas. When I asked her recently about both religions – Christianity and Buddhism – Im Chaem firmly said: “In [my] entire life, [I] [have] taken a middle path for the work I have done. Now I believe in both religions.” She also said she would love to learn more about each religion. She emphasised that they “are no different, but Christianity is more open”. Now, she has stopped lighting incense sticks, although she continues to visit the pagoda.
For some, Christianity can be a source of healing because it is more open, as Im Chaem has said. Christianity allows an individual to repent for their wrong, immoral acts and be forgiven. Others might see Christianity as a means of survival by providing psychological and spiritual closure and healing. Moreover, in emergency situations, like Im Chaem’s son’s illness, a Christian organisation provided timely assistance and help. Where are the others? It is worth pondering whether Im Chaem converted in the name of God or in response to a social need.
Ly Sok-Kheang is the director of Anlong Veng Peace Center, established by the Documentation Center of Cambodia in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism.