The self-help tradition in the pagodas of Cambodia


A common feature of community development projects is to set up new self help \"DSC02901\"groups to run community development initiatives.  This approach often disregards the existence of groups and associations that have been traditionally active as the story of the pagoda of Botum tells us.

The village of Botum Lech is located in the district of Stoung, along a dusty laterite road, twelve kilometres from the national road n. 6 which connects Kampong Thom with Siem Reap. 

The origin of the community development activities of the Pagoda of Botum, as remembered by two community leaders Mrs. Buon Norm and Mr Hang Toy, goes back to the beginning of the 1950s.  The abbot of that time, Venerable Theng Gna, after a period of study in Phnom Penh, in 1952 organised a Pagoda Association with the help of 12 achars (lay men).  This was one year before Cambodia gained independence from France,

The main purpose of the Pagoda Association was to contribute to the improvement of the buildings in the pagoda compound.  A statute of 17 articles describes the structure of the association, its objectives, and activities.

In 1959, the Pagoda Association had sufficient capital to start the construction of a primary school near the pagoda compound.  Additional funds were provided by villagers through contributions in cash and in kind.  The school of the pagoda of Botum was one of only three primary schools in the district.  In 1970, the war reached Botum, and by 1972, the area came under Khmer Rouge control.  People stopped repaying their loans and making contributions, so the association had to suspend its activities.  At some point, after 1975, Venerable Theng Gna and the other monks had to disrobe and work at collective farms with the other villagers.  Since the Khmer Rouge had outlawed all forms of associations, the achars of Botum pagoda took the important documents and statute of the association and hid them in sealed bamboo sticks which were buried under their houses.  They dug them out only after the end of the Khmer Rouge régime in 1979. 

At the beginning of the Vietnamese occupation in 1979, Theng Gna went back to the pagoda of Botum but no longer as a monk.  In those initial years, it proved difficult to restart the association because the new government had established solidarity groups in charge of community activities and reconstruction and fighting continued until the beginning of 1996.  Theng Gna and the achars managed to re-establish the Pagoda Association on 24th December 1988.  The School Association of Botum was re-inaugurated one month later with contributions from 122 villagers.  In recent years the villagers supporting the school has increased to 678 and so has the capital of the association.

The original statute of the School Association of Botum states that the “Association is established to educate and encourage the memory and conscience of the Buddha [and] strengthen the national culture and society in Botum and ensure sufficient schooling for our children”.  The experience of Botum shows that pagodas represent a space where community initiative have traditionally resulted in different kind of community initiatives. A space worth exploring through research in order to understand its peculiar value and the opportunities it presents for community-based development.

Few years ago, we received the visit of a representative of an international NGOs who wanted to learn more about these associations and discuss the possibility to fund some of the activities of our project. He was very impressed by the range of self help initiatives the associations were managing. On his way out form my office he turned as if he had forgotten something and asked me whether these associations were registered as NGOs at the Ministry in Phnom Penh. I told him that they weren’t and that their purpose and ambitions were very different from those of local NGOs who were instead run as private businesses. He apologised and said that the rules of his NGO allowed only for funding of registered organisations. In other words, the pagoda associations were not considered reliable enough as they lacked the signature on a declaration by an official in a Ministry in Phnom Penh.

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