The land of heroes
Our heroes
Our land
Cambodia Kingdom

Friday, September 28, 2007

The leaf-books of Khmer Monks

23 September 2007 (Vietnam News, courtesy of chlim01) - The art of inscribing text on leaves used by monks in Cambodia is in danger of being lost as the sole monk with the skill takes a two-year break without finding any successor. The Cambodian version of the art is not old - only about 100 years old - but similar ancient traditions are found elsewhere in the region, for instance by the Cham in South Vietnam (see related story at the end of the post). I wonder if there’s a regional tradition of writing texts on leaves. Further south in Bali and Java there are copies of king-lists written on palm leaves. It occurs to me that the Malay word “buku” is a corruption of the English word “book”, but ancient texts surely existed before European contact. Today, virtually all textual sources of ancient Southeast Asia is based on carved inscriptions on stone. However, I would not be surprised if this region had a rich textual culture based on leaf-books such as the ones mentioned here.

Monks await next in line to record history
by Trung Hieu – Vien Du
On a quiet, peaceful afternoon, in a large, airy chamber of an ancient Khmer pagoda, two yellow-robed monks – one wrinkled, one fresh-faced – study a large Buddhist prayer book.

They must turn each page carefully, for the book doesn’t contain ordinary paper. Rather, its pale yellow pages are made of a special type of dried leaf, on which prayers and descriptions of historical events are etched in delicate Khmer script.

Xa Ton Pagoda (or Xvayton, in Khmer) in the southern province of Soc Trang preserves over 100 such Buddhist prayer books made of buong leaves, or Sa-tra, as they are known in Khmer.

According to its oldest monks, it was in this pagoda in Tri Ton District that a monk created the method to carve prayers on leaves over 100 years ago, and the technique caught on as a way to preserve prayers.

Ethnic Khmer monks had previously used bamboo planks as canvases for recording prayers and stories, but the leaf idea proved superior: many have survived more than a century without suffering damage from termites or other wood-eating pests.

Not just anyone could learn the art of creating the books, however. The pagoda’s chief monks only taught the skills to a few gifted monks who proved virtuous.

Now, in the town of Tri Ton in An Giang Province, only one monk, 62-year-old Chau Ty of Svay So Pagoda, knows how to inscribe the holy writings onto dried leaves. Exhausted after 40 years of writing such books, he opted to take a two-year break.

“Writing prayers on leaves is not an easy job. We have to clean ourselves then burn incense to the Buddha, and our minds must be very tranquil – only then can we start the work,” he says.

Finding an appropriate successor to train, however, has proved trying.

“I wish to find a follower to whom I can transfer my skills, but so far I have not found anyone suitable,” the old monk says with a sigh.

Xa Ton Pagoda’s Chief Monk Chau Phuol agrees that the process of constructing the books is a lengthy one. First, the maker must find the buong trees, a rare plant located only in isolated mountainous areas. Then, the young leaves must be cut down and allowed to dry in the sun before being cut into 60X6cm pieces.

The maker then uses a pointed iron tool to carve each letter on the leaf canvas, then rubs the surface with ink. He cleans the surface and lets the leaves dry under the sun once again. Each leaf can contain five vertical lines of sparkling script, with 20 characters in each column.

“It could take all day for a skilful maker to complete one leaf,” he says.

Once the pages are bound with string or human hair, the result is a smooth, shiny book, often weighing about 1kg.

The contents of these books are diverse, ranging from stories about the Buddha to daily prayers, lessons in virtue and Khmer folk tales and legends. To monks at the pagoda, the books beckon from another time in Xa Ton’s 200-year history, to the era when the pagoda was surrounded by dense forest inhabited by monkeys – which gave the pagoda its Khmer name meaning “troops of monkeys coming”.

More than 1,000 such leaf books are also preserved in the nearby province of Kien Giang, home to 73 Khmer pagodas. Famous pagodas Phat Lon, Lang Cat, Soc Xoai and Ta Pet harbour a large collection of the books, but the numbers of those able to read them are dwindling.

Danh Duc, principal of the province’s Ethnic Minority Boarding School, fears that the books may have outlasted their readership: only a few elders remain in the province who are able to read the ancient Khmer scripts written in such books.

“Most of them are very old and weak now,” he says. “I am afraid that a part of the treasure of folk knowledge and valuable information on history, culture and society may be lost, as we lack people who can read and translate these ancient documents for future generations.”

Taking a leaf from the Cham

The idea of making prayer books out of buong leaves also caught on among the Cham people: in the central province of Binh Thuan’s Bac Binh District, 13 such books remain as relics of Cham cultural heritage.

The ancient tracts are kept safe in the home of chief monk Mai Tiem in Binh Tien Village, Phan Hiep Commune, where the local Cham practise Brahminism.

When the Cham gather for rituals, they bring out the books, but not for reading. The 40X5cm books are displayed in places of honour, considered sacred items.

“Perhaps our ancestors wrote these books with the belief that when they read them they would be helped to avoid wild beasts or failed crops,” Mai Tiem says. “Some books contain prayers for organising sacred ceremonies and annual festivals. Some are simply testaments for the descendants.”

Mai Tiem’s youngest son Mai Huu Xuan says his family often cleans each page of the books carefully and hangs them in a dry, clean place to ensure that their legacy will last for future generations.

Read more!

Kid's Day a Hit in Cambodia and Thailand

"Bring Your Kids to Work Day" has become quite popular in several countries along the Pacific rim, according to one spokesperson for the Universal Children's Organization.

"It's amazing! The kids go to work with the parents, and productivity seems to go way up! The kids even end up staying late."

She added that the sneaker and clothing industry seems to have taken to the event most successfully.

So great was the scheme's success that the Cambodian government is planning to make it more than just a once a week thing.

Business analysts see this as a good thing.
Read more!

Teaching from Cambodia


ATTLEBORO - Hoeurn Somnieng's mother sent him to live with another family as a preschooler so that he could get an education and grow up away from the abusive household into which he was born.
Somnieng studied hard, but was denied a diploma when his impoverished family couldn't spare $5 for a bribe for a good mark on a national standardized test. Unbowed, Somnieng turned to a Buddhist temple in a poor province of Cambodia - the only source of a free education unsullied by palm-greasing in a land only now recovering from the ravages of the Khmer Rouge.

Now a Buddhist monk, Somnieng has spent the past several years of his life working to bring Cambodians advantages he never had by founding a growing collection of social and educational movements that include a sewing trades school, a foreign language academy and a junior high school.

Many of those who attend the schools, run by the Life and Hope Association, are victims of domestic abuse or poor young people trapped in lives of menial labor or the sex industry.

"I wanted people to have an alternative to poverty," said Somnieng, 27, who administers the school at the Wat Damnak temple in rural Siem Reap Province. About 15 students of all ages attend.

Somnieng visited Attleboro High School Thursday as part of an exchange tour during which he is studying western educational methods and attending conferences and meeting with Cambodian-American students.

During the short visit at AHS, he answered questions from an asian studies class at the school and visited with social studies teacher Tobey Reed, whom he met while Reed was visiting Cambodia as a teacher volunteer.

"He's an extremely impressive individual," said Reed, who noted Somnieng's tour is sponsored by the East-West Center. Attleboro was put on the tour partly because of the school's significant population of students whose families came to this country from Cambodia.

For Cambodian students, the visit by the distinguished monk provided a source of inspiration.

"Because of all the things he's done, I feel so very proud of him," said Pagna Eam, a senior who emigrated with her family in 2004. "His story reminds me of what it was like in Cambodia."

The Life and Hope Association is the umbrella organization for Somnieng's school, which is partially funded by foreign aid programs in the United States, Australia and Germany, pays for student transportation and meals, as well as supplements salaries of government teachers.

The major focus is vocational training, with graduates of its sewing program receiving a sewing machine, material and a microloan to start their own businesses. Alternately, graduates can go to work for large companies or remain with the temple, which markets seamstress services.

Somnieng is currently on a four-month, whirlwind tour that includes a number of conferences, visits to schools and teaching assignments stretching from Hawaii to China. While in the United States, Somnieng will also visit Vermont, Connecticut, New York and Iowa.
Read more!

More barriers to entry

We accept the reality that our economic development lags behind Asian peers such as Malaysia, Thailand and China. We often joke around that we might have been overtaken by "new kids on the block" like Vietnam and Cambodia.

Now, we cannot joke anymore. Vietnam has really leap-frogged Indonesia, at least according to the Doing Business 2008 survey conducted by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, which compared indicators across 178 economies from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Indonesia ranks 123, behind Vietnam's 91. Our other peers are far ahead us. Malaysia, for example, sits 24, Thailand 15 and China 83. This is not to mention Singapore, which tops the list, and Hong Kong, which ranks fourth.

Indonesia only fares better than countries like the Philippines (133), Cambodia (145), Laos (164) and Timor Leste (168).

But there is always a consolation. Indonesia has experienced a steady, albeit slow, progress in improving its business environment. Indonesia's overall "ease of doing business" ranking improved from 135 last year to 123 this year.

This mild progress has been supported by macro economic stability, government reform packages in the real sector, passage of investment law, tax and customs reforms as well as introduction of one-stop service in some local governments.

Indonesia's low rank is especially related to cumbersome entry procedures. The survey shows starting-up a new business in Indonesia is getting more difficult. It now needs 105 days to set up a legitimate shop in this country, longer than 97 days last year. With this worsening situation, Indonesia now ranks at the bottom among Asian countries in terms of starting-up a business.

This result confirms a previous survey by University of Indonesia's Institute for Economic and Social Research (LPEM-UI), which shows processing time for a new start-up business slows down to 86 days from 80 days previously.

This reality is especially worrying for Indonesia's economy. Such increasing barriers-to-entry simply prevent those in the informal sector from entering into the formal sector.

If these informal businesses continue to operate in the informal sector, they will not be subject to taxes, and therefore, it would be hard for the government to increase the country's tax ratio.

It is a stark irony. While the government, through the tax office, is trying so hard to expand the coverage of taxes, at the same time, it is making it difficult for informal businesses to go formal.

That's why, the tax office cannot really expand the tax base. It's only targeting those who are already paying taxes -- just like hunting in the zoo. It cannot go after those in the informal sector, who like those in the illegal sector, such as gambling and prostitution, remain untaxed.

Barriers to entry are just many. Minimum capital requirement is one. This requirement is totally unnecessary because this automatically prevents micro businesses to go formal. In more advanced neighboring countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Australia and Hong Kong, and even developing countries like Vietnam, a minimum capital requirement is just nonexistent.
So why do we require businesses to have a capital requirement in order to go formal? It might be just one of the ways to prevent new entrants into joining the lucrative tenders of the government procurements. This may satisfy existing contractors and also officials who regularly receive kickbacks from the contractors, but it is at the expense of more tax income for the government. So, the government needs to reconsider this minimum capital requirement.

Another problem, according to LPEM-UI, is the decentralization of licensing to the provincial office of the Justice Ministry. Inefficiency at these provincial offices added more than two weeks to the business start-up process, and led to more face-to-face contacts with officials, thus increasing likelihood of bribery and corruption.

Therefore, we suggest the government centralize again this licensing authority until the government is ready to implement safeguard measures to prevent corruption at local offices of the Justice Ministry.

The bottom line is cumbersome entry procedures in Indonesia are often associated with more corruption. Corruption is just at the root of the problem of doing business in Indonesia. As long as corruption remains rampant, we cannot expect our ranking in doing business to match the level of Malaysia or Thailand.

The latest survey by Transparency International Indonesia, which shows Indonesia scored worse on its latest corruption perception index, does not give much expectation. Unless we strive further to tackle corruption, we are afraid our standing in the Doing Business survey will not improve much -- or it could even worsen, and we would be eventually taken over by other new kids on the block like Cambodia, Laos or even Timor Leste.

Read more!

Commentary: Trial by fury in Cambodia


Guest Commentary
In his commentary entitled "No immunity for Sihanouk" dated Sept. 5, Dr. Lao Mong Hay argues that retired King Sihanouk should not be given immunity by the mixed Cambodian-U.N. tribunal set up to try Khmer Rouge leaders. Lao writes: "Sihanouk, while in China in the immediate aftermath of being overthrown, became the head of the Khmer Rouge-dominated government in exile. From China, Sihanouk used his popularity to mobilize the Cambodian people 'to go into the maquis (jungle)' to join the Khmer Rouge."

Lao also writes: "Furthermore, many Cambodian people still believe that Sihanouk was instrumental in the Khmer Rouge's victory and was therefore also responsible for the suffering of the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge's rule. They also want justice and to know the truth about their horrible past history in which Sihanouk must have had a hand due to his association with the Khmer Rouge."

These are serious allegations against retired King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, yet Lao has offered no evidence to support his claims.

Firstly, Samdech Sihanouk did not join the Khmer Rouge; they adhered to his United National Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) which was established by the retired King in Beijing on March 23, 1970, after he had been overthrown by a U.S.-supported coup led by General Lon Nol. There is a statement signed by Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim and Hou Youn, nominal leaders of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, to that effect. Khieu Samphan is still alive in Cambodia and he can be consulted about the veracity of this. Hu Nim and Hou Youn were killed by Pol Pot.

Secondly, If Lao cares to consult the series of messages King Sihanouk issued to the Cambodian people from Beijing, he never told them "to go and join the Khmer Rouge" but rather to join the resistance fighting the Lon Nol regime and the U.S. and South Vietnamese invaders. The resistance was not comprised solely of Khmer Rouge but initially of a majority of supporters of Sihanouk, even some princes of the royal family, public servants, diplomats and the people, who had been driven toward the resistance by the U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia and the tremendous corruption of the Lon Nol regime.

That these non-Khmer Rouge, nationalist, pro-Sihanouk forces were later on liquidated by the Khmer Rouge, allowing it to take the upper hand and achieve final victory in April 1975, is another completely different story.

Thirdly, King Sihanouk was head of state of the Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia, which was established in exile in Beijing in May 1970. It was in that capacity that Samdech Sihanouk returned to Cambodia from Sept. 9 to 28, 1975, then proceeded to China for the National Day and then to New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

After visiting the United Nations, he undertook a long trip of Arab, African and European countries that had recognized his government from 1970 to 1975, and then on Dec. 30, 1975, he returned to Cambodia.

In Phnom Penh, he lived under house arrest and could only leave the Royal Palace when the Khmer Rouge allowed him to make visits to the countryside. All contact with the Cambodian people was forbidden, even with his own children, grand-children and other members of the royal family.

The deputy chief of mission of the Romanian Embassy in Beijing, a gentleman surnamed Lefter who visited Cambodia in late January 1976, upon his return to Beijing told U.S. diplomats that he had had a three-hour private conversation with Sihanouk. He described the prince as being very sad and feeling that he had been dealt a double blow, first by the Lon Nol coup and second by the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk had lost weight, was despondent and feared for his life, he said.

An Egyptian diplomat in China by the name of Tewfik, who had known Sihanouk since 1958, visited Cambodia in early March 1976. He commented to the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing that Sihanouk "was a head of state who had nothing to do with the day-to-day business of government."

Both diplomats felt that Samdech Sihanouk did not enjoy much power or influence and that he owed his life to the influence of China with the Khmer Rouge, and to the interest other foreign heads of state showed for his well-being.

In 1977, President Josip Tito of Yugoslavia, for instance, was only willing to receive a visiting Khmer Rouge delegation led by Ieng Sary after he was given assurances that his ambassador in Phnom Penh would have access to Sihanouk.

Samdech Sihanouk submitted his resignation in early March 1976. Thus, it would have been very difficult for His Majesty to "have had a hand" in the horrible events that took place in Cambodia afterwards.


(Ambassador Julio A. Jeldres is a former senior private secretary to King Norodom Sihanouk and the king's official biographer. He established the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh in 1992 and has worked as consultant to several U.N. agencies in Bangkok. He is presently a research fellow at Monash University's Asia Institute in Melbourne, Australia.)
Read more!