For decades, Cambodians with nowhere else to go have sought refuge at pagodas. The landless, the destitute and migrants to new places—especially Phnom Penh —have traditionally been welcomed in houses of worship.
But for more than 100 poor people from Kompong Speu province, the pagoda is no longer a welcoming place. They came to Phnom Penh to appeal for food, but found they could not stay in Wat Svay Pope near Sam Rainsy Party headquarters.
“We were chased away from Svay Pope pagoda on Sunday by the monks and pagoda workers,” said Hem Pon, one of the villagers from Daun village in Samrong Tong district. “They said we made the pagoda dirty and annoyed the monks with our smell.”
To Hem Pon, the eviction was a betrayal. “I donated 2,000 riel [about $0.50] and rice to the pagoda for school construction last year,” he said. “People from my village collected money and rice to contribute to the pagoda. But all we got in return was to be chased out.”
The evicted people have set up a plastic-roofed shelter in front of the Sam Rainsy Party headquarters on Sothearos Boulevard. They have been there for more than one week. At night, some of them leave and find another place to stay, returning in the morning.
“If I had rice to eat, I would not come here,” said a woman who carried her 1-year-old son and who declined to be named. “It is not easy to stay here. My son is sick, and all day long he is in the sun.”
The people were creating a nuisance in the pagoda, said Tan Phimeas, who works as a cleaner at Svay Pope and claimed they dirtied the pagoda compound.
“According to Buddhist principles, it is a sin to deface the pagoda like this,” he said. “We can’t allow them in here because we don’t want this sin. The monks are not bad—it is the others who did wrong.”
But hospitality and generosity are also Buddhist principles, and the poor people in their camp lamented what they saw as the disintegration of these values.
“People in Phnom Penh are not as nice as people in the countryside. They do not respect the elderly,” Ngeth Moth, 67, said in a wretched voice.
“I have never asked for help from the government or the Red Cross until now. But now I am asking for the first time because I have nothing to eat.”