Doctrine divides, Action unites


  February 2014

The Role of Religions in Society

Hor Hen

Rubble is the product of the forced evictions of people from their
homes by the police and military in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila area
in January 2012 so that a private development can be built.
(Photo from

In todays’ world, many people believe in a Divine Being who is superior to them in power and other multifaceted ways. They believe in this source and energy of life through different faiths. Some people believe in Lord Buddha while others believe in Allah, God, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and the Spirit of animism for indigenous people.

In the West, people often are followers of Christianity; in the Middle East, Islam is the predominant faith; in many countries of Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, people often practice Buddhism while in many parts of South Asia, such as India and Nepal, Hinduism is the preferred religion of many people; and throughout the world, indigenous people relate to the Spirit. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism are the four largest organized religions in the world and play important roles in various societies. Currently, they have spread their religious teachings all around the world to promote peace and harmony.

In Cambodia, Buddhism has played an important role to educate people for many generations. The Cambodian people strongly believe in the Buddhist scriptures and Buddhist teachings and those who devote themselves to their faith—Buddhist monks. By faithfully following the teachings of Buddha, people in previous generations were very peaceful, honest, caring and full of kindness and love and related to others in a spirit of respect and solidarity. They lived happily together without being consumed by greed; they did not kill, steal or cheat each other; they never feared each other.

However, throughout history, and sadly even today in some countries, people experience conflict between different religions. In Asia in recent years, various countries—Burma, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, for instance—have periodically experienced violent conflicts between people of different religious communities with many people killed and injured and many homes, mosques, churches and temples destroyed, all of which create countless cases of suffering for the people of all faith communities and problems for the government to address. There are also examples of conflict between different religious communities in Western Europe as well, such as in the Balkan countries in the 1990s.

In its history, Cambodia has also faced religious conflict, such as between the Buddhist and Hindu religions during the Angkor era. Religious conflict also occurred around nine years ago when there was violence between Buddhists and Christians. At that time, the Cambodian people, most of whom believe in Buddhism, became angry with Christians because people felt that they came to Cambodia to try to convince the Cambodian people to convert to the Christian faith. People burned churches in some provinces, and it became a major issue for the Cambodian government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to address.

Violent religious conflicts are naturally like wars, and ordinary people feel terrified with many innocent people killed and injured. People will follow the violent path advocated by a religious leader if the religious doctrine or dogma is not properly conveyed or if the doctrine or dogma itself is not rooted in the teachings and values of the faith. In cases in which the religious leader tries to educate or convince people to believe that their religion is right and the others are wrong, then it is easy to lead to conflict.

In response, the government and some NGOs devoted to peace-building began activities to educate the youth as well as adults by engaging them with people from different faiths. Through this process, it is intended for the youth and others to begin to learn and understand about the faith and religious beliefs of those from a different faith tradition with the hope that, when people better understand each other, prejudice and stereotypes about people practicing another faith will be seen as false and misplaced. With knowledge based on one’s experience, people can then better live together in peace and harmony in their local communities and in the larger society.

When people begin to learn about different faiths and their beliefs, they realize that every religion has a role and responsibility to teach people. The sacred texts of each faith teach their followers how to love, to be at peace with themselves, to be peacemakers, to be kind. Each religion also teaches people to love each other, share with each other and care for each other. Most importantly, each religious tradition instills in people not to kill, not to steal, not to cheat, not to commit adultery, not to be greedy, not to be corrupt. Every faith has a role to play in teaching people to respect life and the rights and dignity of all human beings: people should not exploit or discriminate against others; they should not seek to dominate others. In short, all religions have a mission to embed values in people to guide their life and their relationships in society, i.e., each person’s life is unique and must be respected and protected.

In Cambodia, however, from 2007 to 2013, the country witnessed years of darkness. Within this six-year period, there were many conflicts and social issues that the Cambodian people had to face.

The government, for example, launched a development program to provide land concessions to private companies to plant rubber, sugar cane, cassava, corn, palm oil and, in general, develop the agricultural sector. As a result, a huge amount of land was provided to the private sector, and, in the name of development, forests were cut down.

Moreover, during this time, many illegal mining and logging operations added to this destructive development process through the decimation of the forests in numerous provinces, such as Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Kratie, Steung Treng, Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang and Koh Kong—almost every province. These illegal business activities, which were ignored by the government, have had a negative effect on Cambodia’s economy and environment as well as its ordinary people. They have impacted the poor, ethnic and indigenous people whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on the forests, for there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic and indigenous people who have lost their land, their community’s forest and their culture and traditions. Their economies are in tatters because they have lost all their land and forests. As the private companies grab all their land and let people suffer, there is no response or solution from the government.

Consequently, forced evictions and murder became burning issues in Cambodia from 2007 to 2012. Some of the well-known cases of land-grabbing include those at Boeung Kok Lake, Borei Keila, Dei Kroham and Sambok Chab around Phnom Penh as the government and private companies pushed people off their land and forced them out of their homes, moving them 30 kilometers from the capital to Beong Sayab in Sen Sok District. By forcing people to live there, people faced many hardships—no food, no shelter, no electricity, no clean water, no health care centers, no schools for their children, no jobs. In short, these people, who had previously been poor, suffered and became even more impoverished. When people protested though in the city to claim back their rights for housing and food, etc., the government exercised their power, not to help them, but through the deployment of the police to stop their demonstration. This use of force sometimes resulted in people being shot and killed while trying to defend their basic rights. Meanwhile, the government was deaf to their pleas for justice and offered no resolution of these adversities in their lives.

During these dark times, however, I did not see any response or helpful activities from any religious group, such as Buddhist monks, Christians or Muslims, to take action or to aid the people in any way. It seems that they were scared or afraid that they would be hurt or even killed, and consequently, all of them hid peacefully in their temples, churches and mosques. I didn’t hear any speech, plan for any action, calls for negotiations or written statements to the government to stop these acts against the humanity of the Cambodian people. From the people’s perspective, the Buddhist monks and other leaders from the Christian and Muslim communities should come out to negotiate with the government or private companies to protect the rights of the people, to encourage people to fight for their rights, freedom and dignity. All of these reactions should have been organized by the religious leaders because people believe in the values they promote, and they are respected by the people in the country. Thus, religious leaders of all faiths should play their important roles to stand with the people, but what I observed was that they peacefully hid and let the people cry out in suffering that there is no solution. As noted earlier, every religion has a role and responsibility to teach people, to promote and protect human rights, freedom and dignity; but during this period of Cambodia’s history, I didn’t see any response from the country’s various religions to address the issues and crises affecting the people—their followers.

Other concerns involved Cambodia’s national election in July 2013. Before the election, I was very surprised because I found that many people were getting involved with the election campaigns, and I could see more and more people were taking part with the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP. During the campaign, I saw conflict between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party—the CPP. People shouted, “Change! Change! Change!” everywhere in the city and in the countryside. People shouted from the suffering of their heart, and they really wanted change; they wanted to change the prime minister from the dictatorship of Hun Sen to a democratic leader, Sam Rainsy. On election day, I observed that more and more people went to vote, and I felt that the CNRP would win; but then after the election when the results were announced, the CPP had won! It was unbelievable! One day later the CNRP stated that they would not accept the outcome of the election, and therefore, they would not take their seats when the National Assembly, Cambodia’s lower house of Parliament, met.

Later the leader of the CNRP called for demonstrations to renounce the election results and to ask for a re-election. During the protests, I saw that the CPP or the government tried to stop and block the demonstrators, not allowing them to walk through the main roads of Phnom Penh. Although the government used their power to block or to stop the people, the people were not afraid, and they continued their demonstrations for days. I was really surprised! At every demonstration, I noted that the Buddhist monks took part and played an important role; they acted as a key person at every demonstration. Thus, I observed that the monks played a significant role during a difficult and tense time in Cambodia, but I did not see any response from the Christian or Muslim communities at that time.

In conclusion, I would like to repeat some of the words of a popular song from the School of Peace (SOP): “Pray for the peace of humanity, pray for the peace of humanity, humanity shall live in peace.” I would like all of the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim religious leaders to think of the suffering of the ordinary people who are dominated and oppressed by the government. I would implore you to please be the eyes, the ears, the voices of the voiceless, because the power of ordinary people is suppressed by the government and corporations and their voices are not so loud. Therefore, please be their hands, feet and mouths. Every religious leader and the people should walk hand in hand together, should work together for people’s rights, freedom and dignity. The ancient wisdom of Cambodia proclaims, “A bunch of sticks cannot be broken.” The people and their religious leaders should thus come together and feel the strength of their solidarity, for solidarity is an unlimited power that stands up to every evil and dictatorship.

* Hor Hen is a 2007 alumni of the School of Peace (SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) in Bangalore, India. He lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Home | School of Peace | Faith and Peace Archives | Photos and events | Who are we

e-mail :