Wat and Memorial, A Partnership

Front side of the main pagoda - Wat Baray Choan Daek, Kampong Thom

Front side of the main pagoda – Wat Baray Choan Daek, Kampong Thom

The majority of genocide memorials in Cambodia are on the grounds of a wat.

(My most humble disclaimer: The statement above is not a revolutionary discovery. I claim no novel observation here. Alright, end disclaimer. Proceed with explaining myself.)

A wat is the term used to describe a Buddhist temple site in Cambodia, as well as in Laos and Thailand. It is typically a complex of various buildings, including the main pagoda, the living quarters of the monks, a school, and other structures although it varies among the wats. It is also traditionally the site around which the religious life of a Buddhist community revolves.

During the first two weeks in Cambodia, I visited two memorials. Both of them were tucked away within the confines of a wat. Two memorials – that’s not a lot, I know. However, of the 81 memorials on a list that was last updated by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in 2006, 47 are reported to be located at a wat. (In a conversation on 29 January 2013, DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang suggested that there are now at least 126 memorials.) I presume the remaining memorials are within the premises of a mass grave, a former Khmer Rouge prison or execution site, or an open,  public space. (If a wat was not shut down or destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, they were frequently repurposed as a clinic, prison, or execution site, and thus consequently, mass graves were often nearby.)

After reviewing a handful of the stories behind memorials specifically located at a wat (thus far, stories are courtesy of reports by Andy Brouwer on his blog, “Andy’s Cambodia), it appeared a memorial would roughly come about in this fashion:

  1. Researchers or locals discovered a mass grave.
  2. Debris and the remains of victims commonly found – whole or intact skulls, bones, clothing, shackles – were gathered and taken to the nearest wat.
  3. If the resources were available (usually by contribution from donors in the community, the relatives of victims, or local authorities), then a memorial was built.
  4. Depending on a number of factors, the remains would be stored in a variety of spaces – at the bottom of a dirt pit, resting atop a simple wooden platform, piled in mounds in a small building, or enclosed in a traditional stupa. In many cases memorials started out as a basic structure – made of wood, with the remains laid on a platform above the ground. In time, if further funding and support arose, memorials were rebuilt with sturdier materials and more elaborate designs. The memorials exist in a variety of sizes, styles, and conditions (with the conditions often times declining due to environmental wear or lack of regular, human maintenance).

But let’s go back to the statement I so flagrantly bolded above:

The majority of genocide memorials in Cambodia are on the grounds of a wat.

Given this observation, we cannot not possibly ignore the fact that there exists a strong relationship between Buddhist traditions and the public memorialization of the Cambodian genocide. (Behold, additional flagrant usage of bolded text.) So, I thought it’d be important to read up on the history of Buddhism in Cambodia, particularly during and after the Khmer Rouge years.

Enter a reading of Buddhism under Pol Pot by Ian Harris (DC-Cam 2007).

This thorough work by Harris argues for the inherent role of Buddhism in Cambodia politics and society. While modern Western states are more accustomed to placing a distinction between the “secular” and “sacred,” Harris insists this separation does not exist for Buddhism in Cambodia. Buddhism pervades all aspects of Cambodian society, utilized as a tool in politics as much as it was practiced as a faith by the people. In a sense, Cambodia is Buddhism. Harris produces an analysis which portrays Buddhist undercurrents even in Khmer Rouge structure, ideology, and method. Though the Khmer Rouge actively persecuted the traditional Buddhist institution before and during the 1975-1979 period, they in fact built the structure of their regime using the skeleton of Buddhism.

With Harris’ argument in mind – that Buddhism is a powerful institution in Cambodian society, outlasting even the devastation wrought by the genocide – it makes it methodically irresponsible to dismiss the role of religion in genocide memorialization in Cambodia.

Here are some initial questions to consider:

  • What are the Buddhist concepts of history, justice, and reconciliation? Are they achieved at these genocide memorials?
  • What factors – religious and others – lead to the building and maintenance of a memorial?
  • Does the condition of a memorial correlate with the level of activity in the religious life of a wat and its community?

Conclusion: Understanding the history of a genocide memorial and its role in contemporary Cambodian society is inseparable from understanding the history of its accompanying wat and that site’s role in its community.

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