THE SOUND OF SI­LENCE

HID­DEN SEX­UAL ABUSE HAUNTS CAM­BO­DIA'S MONK­HOOD

Southeast Asia Globe - - Front Page - By Paul Mil­lar

At first he was nice to me,” Sam­nang says, his eyes far away. “He made me feel im­por­tant; made me feel spe­cial.” Sam­nang, whose name has been changed to pro­tect his iden­tity, was barely 15 years old when he left home for Ratanak Mony Rong Ko pagoda in Kralanh district on the out­skirts of Siem Reap town. Born into a poor fam­ily in a run-down vil­lage, and des­per­ate for a way out, he asked his par­ents to send him to study with the lo­cal monks.

“My fam­ily had so many prob­lems – they were fight­ing a lot,” he tells South­east Asia

Globe. “I wanted to be calmer. So they had to send me to live in a pagoda, where I could have free food and ed­u­ca­tion with the monks.”

Bear­ing the shaved head and saf­fron robe of a novice, Sam­nang says he took to his stud­ies of scrip­ture and the an­cient Bud­dhist lan­guage of Pali with rel­ish, ris­ing ev­ery morn­ing to sing the holy scrip­tures of his faith. Fif­teen kilo­me­tres from the near­est vil­lage, Ratanak Mony Rong Ko was a small pagoda with just nine other boys study­ing along­side him un­der a hand­ful of monks. Above these monks was 45-year-old Vong Chet, the ab­bot, or chief monk, of the pagoda. A man whose words car­ried great weight with the com­mu­nity, he soon be­gan to take an in­ter­est in the pagoda's new­est ar­rival.

“A lot of the other monks didn't like him,” Sam­nang says, star­ing at his fingers. “Back then, I didn't know why.”

Over the course of the next year, Vong Chet re­peat­edly raped Sam­nang and the nine other novices liv­ing at the pagoda. The ab­bot would cor­ner them in the stained toi­lets of the pagoda or lure them into his private quar­ters. For some of the boys, the abuse lasted years. Later, be­fore the court, one boy would de­scribe how he had been raped on as many as 25 sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions. Each time, when it was over, the ab­bot would hand him a crum­pled fist­ful of 10,000-riel notes, each one worth $2.50. It was only when the last boy he at­tacked, new to the tem­ple, told his par­ents what had hap­pened that the po­lice were called.

Now 18, Sam­nang works at a mo­tor­bike re­pair shop in Siem Reap town. Scrawny and som­bre, his voice never rises above a mur­mur as he de­scribes the be­trayal he felt when he found out that ev­ery older monk at the pagoda had known about Vong Chet's abuse of the boys in their care – and kept silent for more than two years. “They knew be­fore every­thing hap­pened,” he says. “No one dared to tell me. All the monks •

knew about what was go­ing on, but no one told us kids. No one told us to be care­ful.”

There is lit­tle anger left in him now, he says. He sips his wa­ter and falls silent.

Leaf­ing through a thick red ledger in his of­fice in cen­tral Ph­nom Penh, Child Pro­tec­tion Unit (CPU) di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions James McCabe sifts through the hun­dreds of cases of tor­ture, rape and death that his team in­ves­ti­gates ev­ery year. Bathed in the light of twin com­puter screens stream­ing live re­ports of chil­dren beaten and bru­talised across the na­tion, he passes over a photo of a drowned child, black and bloated, to stop at a dou­ble spread of gaunt young boys in saf­fron robes. Among them is Sam­nang. Al­though Vong Chet presided over the long­est pe­riod of sus­tained sex­ual abuse that McCabe had un­cov­ered in the na­tion's pago­das, he tells South­east Asia

Globe, it was far from the first.

“It's in­sti­tu­tional abuse,” he says. “They've got ac­cess to chil­dren, without any real mon­i­tor­ing. We've [been in­volved in the ar­rest of ] at least ten monks in the past three years for the abuse of boys.

Quite of­ten there were mul­ti­ple vic­tims – some­times two, some­times three, some­times four. A ma­jor­ity of the time, it was only through the par­ents or a rel­a­tive that the dis­clo­sure was made.”

Set up to work with lo­cal law en­force­ment to bring foren­sic spe­cial­ists and in­ves­ti­ga­tors to work on cases where chil­dren are abused, raped, as­saulted or killed, the CPU was ac­tive in se­cur­ing Vong Chet's ar­rest and 15-year im­pris­on­ment. Fol­low­ing re­ports that the ab­bot had pre­vi­ously served a se­ries of short stints – no more than a year or two at a time – at a num­ber of other pago­das across Siem Reap, Bat­tam­bang and Kam­pot prov­inces, a task force was sent to hunt out ev­i­dence of ear­lier vic­tims. The com­mu­ni­ties re­mained silent.

“There was a fol­low-up in re­gards to the wats that he'd been at,” McCabe says, us­ing an­other term for pago­das. “There were no dis­clo­sures – noth­ing that would al­low us to fur­ther in­ves­ti­gate. That's not to sug­gest it didn't hap­pen, be­cause leop­ards don't change their spots. But there were no dis­clo­sures that would al­low us to in­ves­ti­gate.”

Adding that it would be al­most un­heard of for a man of Vong Chet's age to sud­denly be­gin to abuse boys, McCabe drew par­al­lels with the un­fold­ing cri­sis in the Catholic church, where pae­dophile priests were found to have been pur­pose­fully shifted be­tween parishes to re­duce the risk of a scan­dal – al­low­ing them to con­tinue prey­ing on thou­sands of chil­dren in some­times decades-long cam­paigns of sex­ual abuse.

“It's the same as in the Catholic church – they move around, and they don't stop,” McCabe says. “Is it likely that [Vong Chet] had of­fended [pre­vi­ously]? More than likely… He had abused, what, ten, 11 boys at one wat? Who's to say there weren't five more at

“THEY KNEW BE­FORE EVERY­THING HAP­PENED. NO ONE DARED TO TELL ME. ALL THE MONKS KNEW WHAT WAS GO­ING ON”

an­other? He had to start some­where – he didn't just start in Siem Reap, that's quite ob­vi­ous.”

Nor was he the only one. In 2014, a monk fled his pagoda in Kam­pong Cham province af­ter be­ing ac­cused of rap­ing 11 boys, all be­tween the ages of 11 and 16. He was later caught by po­lice and charged. Two years later, in Takeo province, an­other monk was ar­rested for the rape of a 13-year-old boy. McCabe told South­east Asia Globe that, de­spite his ini­tial ar­rest, the abuser was still listed as ‘at large'. And just last year, two monks were ar­rested in Siem Reap and Ph­nom Penh for sep­a­rately abusing two boys in their care. They were both six years old.

Jar­rett Davis, an in­de­pen­dent so­cial re­searcher whose work largely fo­cuses on those vul­ner­a­ble to sex­ual ex­ploita­tion and abuse, said that in­sti­tu­tions in­vested with un­chal­lenged author­ity and power over chil­dren in their care of­ten left those same chil­dren at risk.

“In some ways, in­sti­tu­tions pro­vide a cone of si­lence,” he says. “The big thing so­cially is the power, the author­ity, the pu­rity that is as­cribed to peo­ple – that they're sort of un­touch­able. You grew up in a house­hold where the way your par­ents talk about the monk, or the priest or the rabbi – they as­cribe this po­si­tion to them. And they be­come un­touch­able. And when you see this ugly un­der­belly, it must be your fault; it must be some­thing you've done. Be­cause clearly it's not their fault – they're pure, they're un­touch­able. So what have you done?”

With more than 95% of Cam­bo­di­ans iden­ti­fy­ing as Ther­avada Bud­dhist, the faith is an in­escapable fact of life in the King­dom. Func­tion­ing not just as places of wor­ship but com­mu­nity cen­tres, schools, event spa­ces, res­i­den­tial care and re­tire­ment homes, the lo­cal pagoda is the beat­ing heart of tra­di­tional Cam­bo­dian so­ci­ety.

As liv­ing sym­bols of the sa­cred teach­ings of the Bud­dha, monks re­main a source of much-needed ed­u­ca­tion and guid­ance for their com­mu­ni­ties. More than this, they serve as an in­valu­able way – by means of of­fer­ings, alms and do­na­tions – of earn­ing good karma to en­sure suc­cess not just in this life, but the next.

Yaim Cham­reun, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of First Step Cam­bo­dia, a lo­cal NGO of­fer­ing coun­selling and sup­port to male vic­tims of sex abuse in the King­dom, says that he be­lieves the high im­por­tance placed on pago­das in Cam­bo­dia had cre­ated a cul­ture of gated self-preser­va­tion in the na­tion's largely au­tonomous Bud­dhist sanc­tu­ar­ies.

“Most peo­ple think that pago­das are very sa­cred places – a place where God is present,” he says. “So, of­ten, is­sues are not re­ally be­ing dis­cussed or shared – it's all be­hind closed doors. And they al­ways think about the rep­u­ta­tion of the pagoda. So some­times if the abuse takes place, they'll find ways to cover that up.”

In cases such as Sam­nang's, where the per­pe­tra­tor was none other than the chief ab­bot, it was this unas­sail­able author­ity – and, it was ru­moured, his past con­nec­tion to the Kh­mer Rouge regime – that kept the other monks silent for fear of be­ing cast out of the com­mu­nity they had lived in for most of their lives. •

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