Phnom Penh, Cambodia — Last year, Cambodian peasants in Koh Dach village paid $350 to build a local office for the communist front - by giving the money to Buddhist monks. Another $2,900, donated by villagers as tribute to the temple and to gain heavenly merit, was spent for a new bridge and school.
``The monks never keep the money,'' says Lay Lim, the village communist party chief. ``Their job is to mobilize people to give.''
All over Cambodia, the government has increasingly tapped an easy source of revenue by turning temple alms into indirect taxes. Last year, about $2 million in temple donations were converted into spending for village projects, says Tep Vong, Cambodia's leading monk.
``Buddhism in Cambodia today differs from the days before the Khmer Rouge [1975-79],'' he said in an interview at his office in Phnom Penh, the capital. ``Before, monks were only teachers. Now they can take part in the revolution. The state demands that monks help construct schools, bridges, and hospitals.''
Subverting Buddhism to government needs is nothing new in the history of Cambodia, one of several Asian nations that practice the religion founded in the 7th century B.C. But the coming to power in 1979 of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) has brought many changes to the nation's principal religion.
Before the Khmer Rouge, says Tep Vong, there were about 80,000 monks in Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea). Today, as a result of the Khmer Rouge's near-destruction of Buddhism and the government policy of allowing only men over 50 to enter the monkhood, there is one-tenth that number. In addition, monks elected by the people to local temple committees must be approved by the communist Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP).
And the nation's two schools of Buddhism, which were often at odds with each other in the past, have been forced to unite. ``Now we have completely eliminated philosophical Buddhism,'' says Vandy Kaon, a Cambodian sociologist. ``Buddhism must be part of the people and solve the real problems of the people.''
Buddhist ceremonies and festivals serve as useful forums for government propaganda, especially the perpetuation of hatred of the ousted Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot - May 20th is celebrated as ``Hatred Day.''
At the entrance to the Ounalom temple here, for instance, a large painting depicts atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Worshipers place offerings before a small pile of human skulls, victims of the Khmer Rouge. At the door, a large map shows the victories of Vietnamese troops over Cambodian rebels, including Pol Pot. Inside, a photo of KPRP Secretary General Heng Samrin hangs across the hall from a giant statue of Buddha.
In Tep Vong's chambers nearby hang images of Lenin, Marx, and Ho Chi Minh. ``We are soldifying our unity with Vietnamese Buddhists every day,'' he says.
Although no monk serves on the Party's central committee, Tep Vong is vice-chairman of the National Assembly. He also represents Cambodian monks in the Moscow-organized Asian Buddhist Committee for Peace.
About 140,000 Vietnamese troops remain in Cambodia, eight years after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge and installed the Heng Samrin government. Since then, the government has controlled the revival of Buddhism.
Many Cambodians eagerly embraced their religion again after vowing they would do anything for Buddhism if they survived the Khmer Rouge. At Ken Sway village, about 10 miles south of Phnom Penh, for instance, the people have restored the interior of the once-abandoned temple with beautiful, bright, surrealist paintings of the Buddha's life.
Under Pol Pot, about 90 percent of urban monks and about half of rural monks either died or fled the country, estimates Chou Thou Boua, an Australian researcher who has interviewed dozens of surviving monks.
It was one of the most thorough destructions of a relgious group in modern history, similiar to what China's Red Guard did to Tibetan Buddhists during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and what the Nazis did to the German rabbinate, says David Hawk, an associate of Columbia University's Center for the Study of Human Rights. He is also director of the Cambodia Documentation Commission, a group which plans to put the Khmer Rouge on trial before the World Court.
Tep Vong says the number of monks will increase beyond the present 7,000 to 8,000, ``depending on the economy and cultural situation.''
The government controls the Buddhists, says Tep Vong, and the people should first construct new buildings for the National Front before building a new temple. The Khmer Rouge often cited the Marxist phrase that religion is ``the opiate'' of the masses. ``I don't believe this saying. Pol Pot said this to frighten the people.''
``According to the theory of Buddha, man should not be lazy, ignorant, or poor. Thus, Buddhism comes before Marxism. Since 1979, we have seen no problems between the two. Each has a role and each must respect the other's role.'' Critics say the government prevents children from learning Buddhism.
But for a government trying to rebuild a devastated country, the priority is where the the faithful put their money. ``We cannot afford to devote all our efforts to religious construction,'' says Foreign Minister Kong Korm. ``Our first priority should be to look after the old people and orphans, and build hospitals and schools. It's good that under the leadership of the Party the Buddhists can contribute to the construction of the country.''