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A Doubtful Fate of Laotian and Cambodian Buddhism
Phra Rajavaramuni

I. Laotian Buddhism Takes a New Turn

Though a small country with a small population, Laos was strong religiously. Before the Communist takeover in 2518/1975, Buddhism was the state religion under royal patronage and the Sangha was unified, with no division into sects or denominations, under the leadership of the Supreme Patriarch. In spite of the absence of current statistics, it can be said that in 1975 nearly 100 percent of the 3 million Laotians were Buddhists. Not only were they unified in their faith, they were also strong in their faith.

Laotians were devoted Buddhists of the Theravada School. They adhered to the traditional Buddhist culture that they had shared with the traditional Thais. Laos stood at an earlier stage of modernization than Thailand and the monkhood had not been isolated from, or lost its place in, any sector of Laotian society. The monks had their rightful share in the process of development. Leadership of the monkhood was still maintained and the monks still played significant roles in public education. Ecclesiastical education was a basic part of the national system of education and enjoyed full responsibility of the secular government. In 2507/1964 the Institute of Buddhist Studies was established as an ecclesiastical institution under the charge of the Ministry of Education.[1] Large numbers of Laotian monks went to further their studies in Thailand and India every year and were a direct concern of the Laotian government. On graduation, they had significant places in national affairs. Ostensibly, monks in Laos were thus in a good position to find a suitable place for Buddhism in modernized society and to help the people achieve a desirable development, if they should not fall into negligence and lose the opportunity, and if political events should not interfere and put them out of action or dislocate the whole process.

However, the above promising picture of Laotian Buddhism can be compared only to the visible part of an iceberg seen above water. While the country had a very backward economy and was often spoken of as the least developed of the Indochina states, the Laotian monkhood, on the whole, did more for the persistence of the status quo than for the solution of the problem. The majority of the monks and novices were, like the populace, undereducated, both in the modern sense and in the sense of monastic training. They lived in idleness and in ignorance of the real conditions of the changing society. Superstitious beliefs and practices were prevalent. Generally speaking, the Laotian monks led the masses in this deluding way rather than preach the real teachings of the Buddha to enlighten them. Undoubtedly, this state of affairs contributed to the progress of Communist ideologies among the modern younger generations and, eventually, to the final collapse of the old royal regime.

After a long civil war between the Laotian royal government forces aided by the United States and the pro-Communist Pathet Lao (The Lao People's Revolutionary Party) supported by the North Vietnamese and a long period of political instability, Laos fell completely into the hands of the Communists in 2518/1975. The 600-year-old monarchy was abolished on July 2, 1975 and the kingdom was turned into the Lao People's Democratic Republic. In 2520/1977, Vietnam and Laos signed a 25-year agreement for military and economic cooperation. The 2522/1979 Vietnam-Cambodia pact even says that the three countries "must unite with one another in political, military, diplomatic and other affairs." A large number of refugees have fled Vietnamese-dominated Laos, draining the country of most of its elite. Laotian monk-refugees can be found taking shelter in Thailand and living with Laotian communities in the United States and some European countries. The last patriarch of Laos, a respectable very old senior monk, has been hospitalized in Bangkok. Because of the lack of communication, Buddhism in Laos becomes hidden away as if behind a kind of curtain. Hearsays and rumours develop abroad, including the ones that no new monks have entered the monasteries as people are not allowed to ordain while the pre-existing monks are encouraged or indirectly forced to leave the monkhood and that the monks have been utilized by the current regime as political instruments for indoctrinating the people in the new ideology.

II. The Break-up of Cambodia and Cambodian Buddhism

Cambodia has also shared the same Buddhist tradition with Thailand and Laos, since the beginning of her modern history. According to the statistics of a year during the 1960s, there were 2,750 monasteries with about 70,000 to 80,000 monks and novices in residence.[2] These monks and novices might be either temporary or permanent as they enjoyed the practice of freely entering and leaving the monkhood under the ordination-for-learning tradition which was characteristic also of Thailand and Laos. As in Thailand, there were two denominations or Sub-Orders of the Cambodian Sangha. One was the original order which was later called Mahaanikaaya to distinguish it from the newly-founded denomination of the Dhammayut. The other, the Dhammayut, was the Sub-Order introduced from Thailand in the last Buddhist century. There were two Patriarchs, one for each of the two denominations.

The Cambodian Sangha appeared to be active in education. Efforts were made to modernize the ecclesiastical education. A Pali High School was founded in Phnom Penh in 2457/1914, which was later transformed into a college. Around the year 2499/1956, arrangements were, made for the establishment of the Buddhist University of Phra Sihanu-Raja (The Universite Bouddhique Preah Sihanouk) which began functioning in 2504/1961. The Buddhist Institute of Phnom Penh was also founded to carry out the programmes of propagating Buddhism and Cambodian culture. A Tripitaka Board was appointed a few decades ago for the publication of the Canon together with its Cambodian translation in 110 volumes. During the 1960s, monks were encouraged to participate in various nation-building programmes. BY involving monks in educational and community-welfare projects, it was hoped that the traditional leadership and teaching role of the monks would be strengthened. Primary-school instruction was provided at temple schools throughout the provinces. Monks were engaged in the improvement of village life, leading the peasants in the construction of country roads and bridges and supervising well-digging. Prince Sihanouk was then active in expounding his social gospel of Buddhist Socialism. In the early years of the 1970s, however, political unrest developed in Cambodia, monks and monasteries as well as the people suffered from battles and warfare, and the Buddhist activities were put into obscurity.

In 2498/1955, Prince Narodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne in favour of his father and remained premier to fill a more active political role. When his father died in 2503/1960, Prince Sihanouk, without returning to the throne, became the country's first chief of state. In the face of the Vietnam war, he tried to maintain Cambodia's neutrality. Then, on March 18, 2513/1970, while he was out of the country, his government was overthrown in a pro-Western coup led by Lt.Gen. Lon Nol. Almost suddenly began a long war between the U.S. supplied government troops and the North Vietnamese and Vietcong (gradually replaced, from 2513/1970 to 2516/1973, by the Hanoi-backed native Cambodian Communist insurgents called the Khmer Rouge).

The five-year war ended in April 2518/1975 as the Government surrendered and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Under a new constitution, a State Presidium was established, headed by Pol Pot. Refugees, who escaped to Thailand in thousands, reported that all cities, including Phnom Penh swollen at that time by 2 million refugees, had been evacuated and almost all the inhabitants were forcibly moved to rural areas and put to work in the rice fields or in the jungle where new farm settlements were to be founded. In addition to the long forced marches, they spoke of starvation and wholesale killings. From 2518/1975 through 2521/1978, about 3 or 4 million Cambodians are estimated to have died under the brutality of Pol Pot's regime. The two patriarchs of the two Sub-Orders of the Cambodian Sangha are also reported dead though the causes of their death are still unclear.

In April 2524/1981, a senior Cambodian monk, who is the spiritual leader of several Cambodian communities of refugees in the United States, gave an address in the City Hall of the City of Boston, saying, As you know, more than one third of Cambodia's people were killed in the past ten years, including almost all of Cambodia's 80,000 Buddhist monks ......

In 2521/1978, border clashes with Vietnam developed again. On January 9, 2522/1979, Phnom Penh fell to the Hanoi-backed People's Revolutionary Council of Cambodia headed by Heng Samrin who took over as president of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. Pol Pot forces retreated to the countryside. Fighting still continues, as surely as the increase of the deaths of the Cambodians and the ravage of Cambodia, and will certainly last long as the retreating Democratic Kampuchea government, now with Khieu Samphan replacing Pol Pot as' head of state, is prepared to join with all Nationalist forces in a common front to expel the so-called Vietnamese invaders.


[1] In 2518/1975 the charge was transferred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

[2] In 1970, Cambodia had a population of about 7 million. Another source gives the number of monastories as 3,369 (3,230 belonging to the Mahaanikaaya and 139 to the Dhammayut) and that of monks as 65,063 (62,678 and 2,385 affiliated with the two denominations respectively).


[Originally published in Rajavaramuni, Phra Prayudh Payutto. Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World. (Bangkok: Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, 1st Ed. 1984), pp. 78-82].


Thanking Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for his retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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