Gang members from the provinces have been invited by a nonprofit group to join a very different kind of gang: The monkhood.
Youths from four provinces are becoming monks for a month under a program sponsored by Buddhism for Development, based in Battambang. The youths, who range in ages from 15 to 22, visited King Norodom Sihanouk on Wednesday and are now in Kompong Chhnang helping flood victims.
“These children are students, and this is the vacation time, so we take this opportunity to educate them, in the hopes that they will become good citizens and good leaders,” said Heng Mony Chinda, president of the organization.
Of the 160 youths, 15 are gang members guilty of bullying other children, stealing money or motos, gambling or running away from home, he said.
Besides studying Buddhist principles, the students are learning about how villagers make their livelihoods. They will also learn about the dangers of AIDS by speaking with AIDS patients.
“When they go back to their homes, they can protect themselves from this disease,” Heng Mony Chinda said.
Heang Kim Lao, 18, a student from Battambang, said he noticed friends who attended the program last year were getting better grades in school. He said being a monk has changed him.
“Before I used to stay out late with friends, got into fights and joined a gang. Now I’ve learned a lot from the program and hope that after it I will study hard for my future. My ambition is to become a doctor,” he said.
On Wednesday, the young monks blessed the King with longevity and good health. The King donated $2,000 to the monkhood program and gave 100,000 riel to each ordained youth. The youths will distribute the money to flood victims.
“We chose 80 boys and 80 girls [for the program this year] because we know that the King will turn 80,” he said.
Am Limheng, chief monk of Wat Champoh Kaek in Kandal province, said it was healthy for children as young as 12 to join. Children can become monks to show gratitude to their parents and to amend for the mistreatment of others.
“Those who have entered the monkhood, in the short or long term, will become respectable,” he said.
The program is considering expanding to Phnom Penh, Heng Mony Chinda said.
Buddhism for Development has put 961 children through the monkhood since the program was established in 1995, according to program statistics.
The nonprofit group, which aims to combine community development and skills training with education in Buddhist principles, operates out of more than 30 pagodas in Battambang, Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey provinces. With about 60 staffers and a contingent of volunteers, it has built schools, opened kindergartens for poor children, and trained people in more efficient farming techniques.
Recently it helped reintegrate former Khmer Rouge families in 40 villages in Banteay Meanchey. The organization coined the slogan: “Put down the gun, take up the dharma.”
Until recently the program relied on grants from abroad, with much of the funding coming from the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Now its primary source of funding is individual donations from Cambodians living here and abroad, Heng Mony Chinda said.