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Merit-Making Activities and the Latent Ideal of the Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia


Abstract and Figures

The divergent experiences surrounding merit-making acts represent the distinct backgrounds of individuals and communities that have emerged in postwar Cambodia. This article examines merit-making activities in two Buddhist temples in southwestern Cambodia and the influence of political patronage on temple–community relationships. This influence elicits images of a latent ideal of the Buddhist monastery that are used by local communities to form a social critique both of such political involvement within temples and of the destabilising effect it has on local people's merit-making activities. This ideal also reflected the political economies and social networks created within the temples that comprised two different models of patronage and means of accessing resources.
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Journal of Current
Southeast Asian Affairs
O’Lemmon, Matthew (2014), Merit-Making Activities and the Latent Ideal of the
in Southwestern Cambodia, in:
Journal of Current Southeast Asian
, 33, 2, 27–57.
ISSN: 1868-4882 (online), ISSN: 1868-1034 (print)
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 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 2/2014: 27–57 
Merit-Making Activities and the Latent
Ideal of the Buddhist Wat in
Southwestern Cambodia
Matthew O’Lemmon
Abstract: The divergent experiences surrounding merit-making acts
represent the distinct backgrounds of individuals and communities that
have emerged in postwar Cambodia. This article examines merit-making
activities in two Buddhist temples in southwestern Cambodia and the
influence of political patronage on temple–community relationships.
This influence elicits images of a latent ideal of the Buddhist monastery
that are used by local communities to form a social critique both of such
political involvement within temples and of the destabilising effect it has
on local people’s merit-making activities. This ideal also reflected the
political economies and social networks created within the temples that
comprised two different models of patronage and means of accessing
Manuscript received 16 October 2013; accepted 14 July 2014
Keywords: Cambodia, Theravada Buddhism, merit-making, political
economy, social networks
Matthew O’Lemmon, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and associate profes-
sor at the Harbin Institute of Technology Graduate School in Shenzhen,
China. His research interests include religious nationalism, post-conflict
societies, and the modern relationship between China and Southeast Asia.
E-mail: <>
 28 Matthew O’Lemmon 
This article examines merit-making activities in two Buddhist wats (tem-
ples) based on fieldwork in the southwestern Cambodian provinces of
Kampot and Kep. A materialist perspective in the context of an analysis
of merit-making activities that are driven by a latent ideal of the monas-
tery is used to examine how local Khmer villagers respond to political
influence within temples. “Latent ideal” in this study refers to underlying
notions of monastic propriety with concomitant expectations regarding
monastic roles and behaviour that have carried through since before
1975 and the formation of the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime of
the Khmer Rouge, to the destruction of the monastery during its roughly
four-year reign, and further to its reconstruction from the 1980s to the
present. This ideal influenced and was influenced by the political econo-
mies and social networks within the temples and comprised two models
of patronage and means of accessing resources. The article will demon-
strate how expectations based on this ideal also act as a means of re-
sistance against political influence in the monastery on the part of local
villagers through the latters’ social critique of monastic behaviour and
avoidance of certain temples.
Research for this paper was conducted at Wat Chum Kriel in Chum
Kriel Commune, Kampot Province, and Wat Kompong Tralach in Prey
Thom Commune, Kep Province (hereafter, Wat CK and Wat KT, re-
spectively). Data was obtained through participant observation, focus
groups and interviews with local villagers and monks in and around both
temples. Given that activities conducted within the context of merit-
making vary widely, this study takes a broad view of temple economies.
Thus, while the study of merit economics tends to focus specifically on
those activities involving exchange during ceremonies and rituals, my
research includes activities that influenced relations between local villages,
temples and outside groups.
The issue of exchange in anthropology has historically centred on
how wants and demands balanced against goods and services are cultur-
ally defined. These have ranged from Malinowski’s study of Trobriand
Island economics (1922) to Maus’ “gifting” (1990 [1925]), Polanyi’s cri-
tique of modern capitalism and its effect on human values (1944), the
formalist approach of the 1960s (LeClair and Schneider 1968) and Sah-
lins’ evaluation of “stone-age” economics (1972). Although Sahlins not-
ed that in “primitive” societies balanced reciprocity was the most com-
mon form of exchange (Sahlins 1972: 190), Bourdieu suggests that gift-
giving in pre-capitalist societies is a form of domination and was more
personal than it is in modern states (1977: 189–191).
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 29 
The field expanded to include developmental and peasant studies
(Appadurai and Breckenridge 1976) along with a neo-Marxist focus on
change, struggle and dynamism (Friedman 1975; Godelier 1977), as well
as Scott’s (1976) and Popkin’s (1979) respective studies of moral and
political economies, followed later by ecology (Halperin 1989) and femi-
nism (Waller and Jennings 1991). Good (2004) later expanded the field
with his work on ceremonial economies, examining worship and distri-
bution within a royal South Indian temple and public and private redis-
tribution. Kobayashi’s study of the boran and samay traditions (2005) and
village Buddhism (2008) in Cambodia, as well as Nissen’s (2008) exami-
nation of Buddhism and corruption in a Cambodian monastery raised
further issues regarding merit-making activities within Buddhist wats.
More recently, Ledgerwood’s (2012) study of merit-making activities
during rituals such as Pchum Ben has underlined disparities in status and
wealth between urban and rural Khmers.
This article adds to the literature on merit-making activities in Cam-
bodia by focusing on the everyday realities regarding the creation of
merit and its consequences for rural communities. Although a materialist
perspective is employed, it does not utilise the range of cultural divisions
formulated by Harris (1964, 1979), nor does it argue that Boasian con-
cepts of cultural boundaries separate local villagers from outside actors.
Materialism has its critics, and some may argue that temples serve multi-
ple functions outside of strictly materialist ones regarding the acquisition
of merit. These include their role as a socially cohesive institution and an
independent voice on issues such as corruption and human rights abuses.
However, as Bashkow (2004) notes, penetration of local culture through
globalisation and the increased presence of outside groups increases local
awareness of identity and cultural differences. Thus, the latent ideal
forms a key component of Cambodian culture, influencing behaviour
shown towards those in positions of authority (both moral and political),
determining social roles and expected behaviours and validating the
importance of merit and merit-making activities, which have been in-
strumental in the reconstruction of society, postwar. As an integral part
of social, economic and spiritual relations within Cambodia, the latent
ideal’s use demonstrated local solidarity and acted as a vehicle for criticis-
ing the monastery when outside influence precluded the opportunity for
merit-making activities.
A good deal of money is spent annually at wats for ceremonies,
alms-giving and involvement in temple activities (Ledgerwood 2008:
152–158) that express one’s commitment to the dhamma, to ancestral ties
and to merit-making capabilities. In this article, my focus is not on dãna
 30 Matthew O’Lemmon 
or “pure gifts” but instead concerns those acts specifically done with an
expectation of a return in merit leading to a change in events (either in
this life or the next). Merit’s traditional definition as that quality of moral
goodness stemming from good deeds, acts, mental disposition and
speech is often misunderstood, and I am not going to attempt to address
its many manifestations as identified and analysed by practitioners and
academics. This is not to say that dãna are not given. Many Khmers make
frequent trips to their local temple for a variety of reasons and giving a
“pure gift” counts among them. However, my use of the term “merit”
follows that established and conceptualised by Khmers, both laypeople
and monks, and expressed to me over the course of fieldwork. Merit,
therefore, is defined according to the variety of ways it is employed,
including: to gain status in the present or future, to acquire clients (thus
repositioning oneself as a powerful individual), to bring about a change
in circumstances (such as an alleviation of poverty or hunger) and to aid
one’s ancestors.
Motivations such as these are not limited to the context of Cambo-
dia. In Thailand, merit-making activities have been described as an
“economy of gifts” where “the dhamma becomes limited to what will sell
and what will fit into a schedule dictated by the demands of family and
job” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2010). Although such motivations may be
questionable from a traditional standpoint, local expressions of merit-
making should be judged according to the contexts in which they are
made and by the individuals who make them. Many people, particularly
those who are poor and surviving on subsistence agriculture, engage in
merit-making for a variety of reasons, some of which involve the acquisi-
tion of money and food and the alleviation of hardship. The value of
merit as it is understood and employed in Cambodia and other Therava-
da Buddhist countries cannot be overlooked, and it is unreasonable to
dismiss local constructions out of some sense of academic purity. Evolv-
ing definitions and practices involving merit and merit-making are just as
valid for practitioners for whom the accumulation of merit is of serious
importance as definitions of merit that run counter to them.
Following the end of the DK regime, the re-establishment of rituals
and merit-making activities took on renewed importance given the mis-
ery that pervaded the country. While merit-making activities drew upon
ideals of the past, an ideal existence was certainly not within reach during
this time given the Vietnamese occupation and ongoing civil war. Zucker
states that the loss of so many elders during the DK regime later led to a
breakdown in moral order representing a “structural void” in a society
organised around kinship, rank and hierarchy (2008: 197). The recon-
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 31 
struction of temples and the relationships created with a revived monas-
tic order acted as both a symbol of national identity and a vehicle for
reconnecting with that disrupted social and cosmological order.
Nissen states that Buddhist institutions have become “idealized in
the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge era” as people feel “nostalgia for the
past that is not matched in attitudes towards present-day state institu-
tions” (2008: 287). I also found in the course of my own research that
nostalgia regarding monastic propriety was pronounced. However, I
would suggest that this ideal was not likely the construction of individu-
als coping with the turmoil that follows social upheaval; rather, it was
one formalised in colonialist examinations of Cambodian Buddhism and
nationalist principles pre- and post-independence and in the experiences
of Khmer expatriates abroad, and it is employed today as a form of so-
cial critique. This critique, most commonly expressed as criticism of
“rich” temples and monks, juxtaposes an idealised Buddhist monastery
against the increasing influence of political groups and individuals within
local wats.
Merit-making activities can reaffirm this ideal but they also allow for
the development of political economies and social networks via ex-
change. Political economy, or how an economy can affect the possibili-
ties for action among individuals or groups through access to resources
(Hughes 2003: 9), relates to the broader economy of a wat in terms of its
ability to draw in influential patrons. These patrons can facilitate the
creation of social networks which in turn support wider communal ac-
tion. However, this is dependent on the participation by the wider com-
munity a wat serves. With little communal support, locals may forgo
accessing the political process, resulting in a narrow circle of individuals
for whom contact with influential groups and resources is reserved.
Thus, while anyone can participate in the temple’s economy, only some
have access to its political economy.
The paper begins with an overview of the two temples, which are
distinct in terms of physical size and patronage. The second and third
sections examine the politicisation of the Theravada Buddhist monastery
and of merit-making activities in Cambodia with reference to political
activities in temple affairs – that is, how the latent ideal of the Buddhist
monastery acts as a social critique of political influence while allowing
for the maintenance of relations between the local villagers and the polit-
ical groups on which villagers depend. The final section examines the
political economies and the broader social networks within each temple
which determined relationships between temple communities and politi-
cally influential patrons.
 32 Matthew O’Lemmon 
Wat Chum Kriel and Wat Kompong Tralach
Wat CK and Wat KT are located in the provinces of Kampot and Kep,
respectively. Each province holds a unique position in Cambodian histo-
ry. Kampot, prior to the dredging of the port of Kompong Som (also
known as Sihanoukville), was the country’s chief port, where a vibrant
pepper industry boomed during colonial times, while Kep served as
Cambodia’s premier resort town and favourite of King Sihanouk. During
the DK regime, the two provinces saw some of the most intense fighting
and were among the regime’s last holdouts. Since the late 1990s, both
have made considerable comebacks and have begun to rebuild their
reputation among tourists and businesses keen on tapping a growing
Cambodian economy.
Being among the last holdouts of the Khmer Rouge, though, also
meant that Buddhist wats experienced some of the more extreme forms
of violence, remnants of the Khmer Rouge having held out until, accord-
ing to locals, as late as 1999. Despite this legacy of violence, both prov-
inces have seen a resurgence of Buddhism and the building of temples.
The larger of the two temples in this study, Wat CK, is located in Chum
Kriel Commune, Teuk Chhu District, approximately six kilometres south
of Kampot Town in Kampot Province. The wat is the seat of monastic
administration and home of the senior monk (mekun khet) for the prov-
ince, and it regularly receives visits from political officials, generally from
the dominant Cambodian People’s Party. It is also home to one of the
official memorials for Khmer Rouge victims that dot the country (no. 36,
site no. 070701). During the French colonial period, the temple main-
tained close relations with authorities and played an important role in the
reform of temple schools. Its close proximity to an urban area allowed
for local inhabitants to engage in labour outside of farming. Having a
greater concentration of people meant that homes were built closer to-
gether and a there was a greater number of small stalls selling various
sundries. There was also a mosque and a Cham village several kilometres
south of the wat; however, Cham households were also scattered inter-
mittently among Khmer homes.
Wat CK is also home to the province’s only Buddhist high school,
built in 1998. During the school year, the wat was said to house up to 200
monks, most attending the high school. Being close to town also allowed
for monks to attend English classes or other technical courses. The wat
was different from most other temples given its large size, its high school
and the high number of monks it housed; it also stood out for being the
recipient of political patronage by local and national figures. This had the
deleterious effect of garnering it the title of “rich”, which served to de-
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 33 
termine both the locals’ way of relating with the temple and their opinion
of its resident monks.
The other temple in this study, Wat KT in Prey Thom Commune,
Kep District, Kep Province, is set off from a highway which meanders
east and southeast towards Vietnam. It is eight kilometres north of the
seaside town of Kep and twenty kilometres southeast of the town of
Kampot. It had anywhere between six and nine monks at any given time,
most of whom came from the surrounding villages. It was first built in
1897 by a man named Chong, who was its first abbot as well as the
“Teacher of Sutra-Slekrut”. During the DK regime, it was used as a pen
for livestock as well as an execution site, only to be destroyed in the late
It was rebuilt from 1998 to 2000 with donations from Prime Minis-
ter Hun Sen (whose name adorns the façade) along with donations from
Khmer expatriates living overseas. The abbot was a monk prior to 1975
and initiated the collection of victims’ remains that had been scattered
throughout the area, which he put into a shrine near the vihear (sanctuary).
Although small, it is a popular wat; locals would come and go throughout
the day while older members of the commune attended to various chores
or prepared meals for the resident monks. The methodical rhythm of the
countryside combined with temple goings-on marked the time for
monks and locals. Recently washed robes were regularly draped hurry-
scurry along clotheslines near the monks’ quarters while silent water
buffalos stood guard in nearby fields staring impassively this way or that.
Aside from the disparity in size, the obvious difference between the
two temples was the amount of local activity occurring at each. Wat CK
was often devoid of locals, save young men who had friends serving as
monks or the occasional vendor selling CDs or other items. Wat KT, on
the other hand, always had some activity going on and was the hub of
the commune, whether in terms of children attending the temple’s pri-
mary school, locals preparing for upcoming ceremonies, or labourers
renovating buildings or touching up the murals of the salaa (communal
hall). Although Wat KT did receive funds from political elites, it relied
mostly on donations from locals and Khmer expatriates.
The two temples’ association with influential groups is indicative of
the tension that exists between the political establishment and monastery
that has at times reached boiling point. The government encourages
monks to take on “traditional” roles as moral and religious educators
while labelling personal involvement in politics as “non-traditional”
(khos-tomneam-tumlop) (Heng 2008: 242). Monks gained the right to vote
under the 1993 constitution but later participated in the 1998 demonstra-
 34 Matthew O’Lemmon 
tions against electoral irregularities. The violence which followed moved
Tep Vong and Bour Kry, leaders of the respective Mahanikay and
Thommayut orders, to sign a public announcement preventing monks
from voting. The Ministry of Information and Ministry of Cults and
Religions went a step further in 1999 and again in 2005, issuing and re-
spectively re-iterating a statement that all sermons had to be officially
checked prior to broadcasting (Heng 2008: 243–245).
The government’s limiting of political freedoms has further exacer-
bated criticism of it and has fuelled a divide between traditionalists, who
see the monastery’s role as a social and moral guide, and modernists,
who support a politically engaged Buddhism and the monastery’s in-
volvement in social development (Heng 2008: 243–245). The major
division between traditional (boran) and modern (samay) styles of practice
emerged in the 1910s during the monastery’s reformist movement led by
two monks, Samdech Chuon Nath and Samdech Huot Tath. They insist-
ed on a strict interpretation of Buddhist teaching, chanting the suttas in
both Pali and Khmer, and a rejection of the reliance on spirits (Koba-
yashi 2008: 181). According to Kobayashi (2005), the main difference
between the two styles today is in perceptions of Buddhist practice as
viewed by older and younger generations; the latter include those who
were ordained after Buddhism’s reconstruction and who did not benefit
from seeing traditional practices or learning from older, more experi-
enced monks. Yet, Kobayashi also notes that many temples adopt an
amalgamation of modern and traditional practices and that the terms
encompass more than just a temple’s religious orientation – they also
include views of village life (Kobayashi 2005: 502, 508, 512).
As a traditional temple, Wat KT was seen as an example of good
Buddhist practice and monastic propriety where spirits played an active
role in ceremonies. Its monks were regularly called on for local life-cycle
ceremonies, and the temple itself was a hub of social activity. Within
modern Wat CK, the role of spirits was tangential at best; monks even
told me that the temple had no guardian neak ta spirit (although I later
discovered a dilapidated spirit house that had obviously not been visited
for some time). The educational aspect of Wat CK also distinguished it
in terms of its modern outlook towards the world. Monks attending the
high school studied a variety of subjects – including comparative religion
– and took courses in Pali, Sanskrit, biology and civics.
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 35 
Table 1: High School Subjects and Schedule at Wat Chum Kriel
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Sanskrit (1) Pali (1) Pali (2) Pali (2) Khmer (2) Dhamma (1)
tive Religion
tive Religion
Science /
Afternoon Break
Civics /
ment (1)
Physics (2) Geography
(1) English (1) Biology (1) English (1)
Literature /
Culture (2)
ics (2) Biology (1) History (1) Sanskrit (1)
ics (1)
Note: Number in brackets = hour/s.
Source: Author’s own compilation.
Did the respective traditional and modern orientations of Wat KT and
Wat CK influence merit-making activities? Perhaps for some, but their
differences were pronounced in many other ways: They were not in close
proximity to one another; Wat KT was in a rural area compared to Wat
CK, which was in a urban/semi-rural area and located close to the pro-
vincial capital of Kampot Town; their respective geographic orientations
also led to villages being spread out around Wat KT and more concen-
trated around Wat CK. Further, as Wat CK was the home of Kampot
Province’s monastic administration and Buddhist high school, it housed
significantly more monks. Thus, its administrative atmosphere and the
detached sentiment voiced by monks (who distinguished it from their
“home” wat) did not engender close relationships with locals compared
to Wat KT, which played a significant role in villagers’ lives.
The presence of wealthy and politically connected patrons, however,
was cited repeatedly as the reason locals avoided Wat CK. Further, Wat
CK’s appeal for these patrons originated less likely from its philosophical
outlook and more likely from its large size and equally large number of
monks, its proximity to an urban centre (given that wealthy and political-
ly connected individuals came from Kampot Town and not the rural
countryside), and from the fact that it was the province’s monastic ad-
ministrative seat and the abbot was the most senior monk in the prov-
ince. As shown in the following sections, the quality of patronage and its
influence on temple relations and on merit-making activities were more
significant factors than each temple’s respective religious orientation.
 36 Matthew O’Lemmon 
Politicisation of the Theravada Buddhist
Theravada Buddhism has been used throughout history to control the
far-flung regions of a ruler’s domain. These domains, or mandalas – polit-
ical apparatuses fluid in terms of territory and lacking a fixed centre –
appealed to lesser rulers who were attracted to a king’s ability to establish
alliances and defeat enemies (Higham in Assavavirulhakarn 2010: 18–19).
The cosmological position of the wat and the depiction of the world in
terms of space, time, matter and causality (Tambiah 1976: 334) located
the king as the pinnacle of society, bonding the physical and spiritual
destinies of his subjects to the fate of the kingdom. At the village level,
the individual merit created via the wat acted as a “rationalisation for
social prestige” helping to explain inequality and social mobility (Mulder
1973: 6, 29–30). Thus, the dhamma, merit and samsara (the cycle of birth,
death and rebirth) solidified the king’s power and monastic authority
while stressing obedience to one’s status and position.
As a people’s religion, Theravada Buddhism has been both a target
and a tool of political manipulation. For example, in 2003 the communist
leaders of Laos erected a statue of King Fa Ngum, the legendary founder
of the Kingdom of Lan Xang, in an attempt to shore up their declining
popularity. Leaders even went so far as to portray themselves as the
direct descendants of the king (Thayer 2003: 110). Similarly, political
authorities in Myanmar have maintained control over the sangha through
the creation of a national committee and honorary titles, countering the
monastery’s position as an independent voice of moral authority (Hiroko
2009: 230–232).
Within Thailand, codification of the relationship between the mon-
archy and Buddhism can be traced at least as far back as the fourteenth-
century text known as Trai Phum Phra Ruang, which emphasises the ideal
Buddhist kingship, the cakkravatti, or universal monarch (Cohen 2003:
243). Modern Thai legislation included the Sangha Act of 1902; the
Sangha Act of 1941, which introduced democratic measures into the
sangha; and the Sangha Act of 1962, which removed them. Ishii writes
that the 1902 act
denied personal charisma and created a situation in which the ‘ex
officio charisma’ of monks could sustain popular beliefs. As a result,
salvation became inaccessible to people except through the na-
tional ecclesia: extra ecclesia nulla salus (1968: 78, emphasis in origi-
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 37 
Tambiah refers to Buddhism’s role in Thai society as a “total social fact”
(1976: 529): The relationship between the bhikku and the king, the two
wheels of the dhamma, encompass the lives of all those falling between
them. The king, at the centre of this galactic polity, saw lesser replicas
revolving around him who, in turn, were centres which even lesser rulers
revolved around, down to the local villager (Tambiah 1976: 70). Being
pure and separate from the mundane, the sangha becomes a valid field of
merit whereby individuals can sow their offerings with the promise of
heavenly reward (Ishii 1986: 12–14). Thus, the dhamma is maintained and
transmitted by the sangha, which only exists through outside support; the
king supports the sangha as the defender of Buddhism and his support, in
turn, contributes to the maintenance of the dhamma (Ishii 1986: 12–14).
In French colonial Cambodia, transferring traditional knowledge
within the monastery and state reinforced conceptions of social hierar-
chy. As the burgeoning Khmer intelligentsia became more vocal, mem-
bers began working through the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh – an
institution created by colonial administrators with an eye towards
strengthening the central role of the king over rural temples. As Hansen
(2004) points out, the connection between Buddhism and Khmer identi-
ty in the growing nationalist sentiment of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries was, in certain respects, a reaction to foreign influences and
what was being defined by outsiders as “authentic” Khmer culture. The
push for independence eventually split the sangha into two main ideologi-
cal camps, with many joining Song Ngoc Thanh in the Khmer Serei
(“Free Khmer”) movement and others siding with Son Ngoc Minh and
the United Issarak Front (Harris 2005: 142).
The differences in Buddhism’s expression became exacerbated dur-
ing Sihanouk’s Sangkum government with its brand of “Buddhist social-
ism”. The government’s manipulation of class disparities combined with
incompetent members of the sangha (Mouly in Meagher 1999: 42) solidi-
fied the monastery’s role as bearer of the sacred, maintained through the
top-down hierarchy of the Khmer state (Ayers 2000: 12). Yet, the politi-
cal influence which initially divided the sangha became institutionalised
following Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970 by General Lon Nol. Ironically
it was Lon Nol, an ardent believer in the spells of sorcerers and divina-
tion powers of soothsayers, who cast himself as the saviour of Buddhism
against the communist aggression which ultimately destroyed the monas-
tery during the DK regime of the Khmer Rouge.
With the collapse of the DK regime in 1979 following the invasion
by Vietnam, the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea
(PRK) needed to be propped up with broader societal support. As the
 38 Matthew O’Lemmon 
government could not rely on the galvanising appeal of Sihanouk, who
sought his own opposing coalition to the PRK, it encouraged Bud-
dhism’s growth as a source of legitimation (Harris 2005: 197–198). This
was codified at least in speech when Pen Sovan, secretary-general of the
Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP; later known as the
Cambodian People’s Party or CPP), noted that monks who interacted
with the population were members of the KPRP Front, in effect enlist-
ing the monastery into political service.
By the 1990s the growth of NGOs was often viewed favourably by
Western observers as a way to give voice to the oppressed and counter-
balance state authority (Marston 2009: 228). A key leader early on who
helped link Buddhism to the proliferation of development groups was
Venerable Yos Hut, a Mahanikay monk who became a cultural advisor to
the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Transitional Authori-
ty in Cambodia. Hughes has criticised the conflation of Buddhism with
human rights, arguing that human rights in Cambodia are often learned
rote with little discussion regarding the deeper meaning of what democ-
racy might hold for the country (in Marston 2009: 236). Although this
trend is not necessarily new and can be traced back to Sihanouk’s
Sangkum government, it exemplifies the continued co-opting of Bud-
dhist institutions by state and increasingly international organisations.
Merit-Making Activities in Cambodia
Heder describes Cambodian society as “interlocking pyramids of patron–
client networks” (1995: 425) built on patrimonial as opposed to rational
institutions. Khaeng (2006: 227–228) characterises these as supra-net-
works, each with its own patron or backer (khnang). Although the rela-
tionships established with temples in such a system vary, merit-making
remains central to Buddhist practice in the country (Ledgerwood 2008:
163). Individuals often patronise numerous temples, which Kent de-
scribes as “evidence of considerable cooperative effort and pooling of
resources”, further stating that “the pagoda is ideally the hub of a num-
ber of local associations” (Kent 2003: 10). Kent goes on to note that this
informal reciprocity, although invisible to outsiders, demonstrates the
autonomy of temple communities and can be seen as a form of re-
sistance to both outside influence and administrative officials who lack
local legitimacy (Kent 2003: 11).
This informal reciprocity may demonstrate a continuance of com-
munal relationships shaped over decades of instability, relationships
which changed, perhaps in an effort to fit the circumstances people
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 39 
found themselves in, pre- and post-1979. Indeed, reconstruction efforts
under the PRK government throughout the 1980s and restrictions on
ordinations may have strengthened bonds between temple communities
(chomnoh) and local wats as the latter became some of the few places indi-
viduals could escape the realities of societal reconstruction. Kobayashi
defines a chomnoh as “an unbounded social group, defined by shared part-
icipation in the activities of a certain temple” (Kobayashi 2008: 177). Yet,
he also characterises Buddhist temples in Cambodia as existing in a state
of tension and negotiation among participants of diverse backgrounds
(Kobayashi 2005: 515). Divisions that emerge among temple members
take the form of criticism, or what he calls “lament toward the current
situation” while wrapped in the Buddhist ideal of peace (Kobayashi 2005:
That “current situation” often involves donations from powerful
patrons, highlighting disparities in wealth while connecting local temples
with larger, state-driven efforts to bring rural communities into a broader
framework of relationships (Ishii 1968: 865; Keyes 1989: 131–133; Ledg-
erwood 2012: 197–201). Political patronage can also take the form of
alignment with temples believed to have supernatural powers or access
to parami, the ten perfections achieved by the Buddha which allowed him
to achieve nibbhana. The popular meaning of parami is a benevolent form
of power which can be focused by gru parami, or mediums, for specific
ends (Bertrand 2004: 156–158). The CPP is well known for its patronage
of wats that claim to have cosmo-magical powers, while Prime Minister
Hun Sen has all but rebuilt the complex of Wat Weang Chas in the an-
cient capital city of Oudong (Gyallay-Pap 2007: 92). Guthrie goes as far
as to state that Hun Sen’s actions are meant to define him as the legiti-
mate successor to the Khmer kings of the former capital (2002: 68).
Edwards observes that this type of patronage has become a type of
“racket” where the theatrics of alms-giving by the government are pack-
aged as merit-worthy while suggesting that the monastery may disappear
without such support (2008: 220). Kent, likewise, describes temple
ground-breaking ceremonies as important displays for ratifying a new
kind of political theatre where “power is demonstrated and relations of
economic dependency regimented” (2007: 341). For their part, people
who live near Wat CK would speak of the day Hun Sen flew to the area
in a helicopter, visiting that temple (among others) and offering dona-
tions. While this display of power and authority positively reinforced the
prime minister’s image as patron, it elicited criticism of the temple as
being too closely connected to the rich and powerful.
 40 Matthew O’Lemmon 
These images stand alongside Hun Sen’s portrayal as one who “pro-
tects his followers and ruthlessly punishes his enemies” (Hughes in Ed-
wards 2008: 224–225), or what Heder (2011: 208) characterises as “law-
fare”: the political use of the law and courts against society. In many
ways, the classical image of a dominant ruler acquiring clients through
patronage or force represents an entrenched vision of Cambodian power
– a power that both opposes the change demanded by some foreign
donors and is perpetuated through the aid given by others without pre-
conditions. If the lowly monk represents the “rice field of merit” (Forest
2008: 17) from which merit-making acts bear fruit, overt demonstrations
of gift-giving by powerful individuals catalyse dominance through inti-
mations of kingship.
Merit-Making Activities and the Latent Ideal in
the Communes of Chum Kriel and Prey Thom
The presence of political elites and other influential donors can bring
many changes to local communities, from the disruption of daily life to
the potential loss of autonomy. But the overt presence of political
groups also disrupts the role of temples as institutions of identity crea-
tion – places where children are schooled, young men and women social-
ise, and some local males serve as monks. The perceived intrusion or
even usurpation of this personal relationship calls into question what
little control Khmers have over their lives and those institutions which
impact them directly.
“Control” has been out of the hands of Khmers for quite some
time. Compared to neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia did not so much
as step into modernity as it was dragged in. Yet, Kent also describes
temples as offering hope of “restoring local microcosms of universal
order in which the ideal ruler – the righteous king – is supposed to en-
sure the proper relationship between ordered life and the forces of chaos”
(2007: 339). Those “local microcosms of universal order” are realised on
the local level through the relations between villagers and temples and
the strategies individuals employ when dealing with influential elites.
Although politicians and wealthy individuals donate large sums of
money for construction projects, they differ from those projects funded
through rural community networking and what Kobayashi calls “village
Buddhism” (Kobayashi 2008: 170). As he notes in his work in San Kor
Commune in Kompong Thom Province, while the building of temples is
seen as a meritorious act, the funding available for such projects is min-
imal given the monetary limitations of rural villagers (Kobayashi 2008:
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 41 
170). Outside funding is sought; however, with it can come tensions that
can diminish a temple’s standing in the eyes of those it normally serves.
Given the experiences of Khmers over the past forty years, merit-
making activities that are money-oriented may be an unavoidable conse-
quence of history. And while I have been present at many T’ngai Seul
(the uposatha or Sabbath) where locals would talk and joke in the salaa as
the achar (lay ritual specialist) read off the names of donors and dona-
tions much like an MC at a fundraising dinner, these activities also pro-
vided solidarity. For temples such as Wat KT where donations by locals
were often only a few hundred riel – at most a few thousand (1 USD
equals roughly 4,000 KHR) – it was more the communal atmosphere of
the event than the value of offerings which reaffirmed ties.
By contrast, monks studying at Wat CK would go about their cere-
monial duties, but the lack of connection was apparent on days such as
T’ngai Seul, which some monks had trouble keeping track of and which
brought in far fewer visitors. This difference was also noted by individu-
als regarding temple patronage. Those who patronised Wat CK were said
to be neak mean (rich or well-off individuals) and generally linked to elite
circles or urban centres, while neak srok or neak srok srae (country people)
were associated with Wat KT, regardless of their actual solvency.
In line with Kent’s (2003) research, there was a tendency for at-
tendees at both temples – both neak mean and neak srok – to patronise
numerous wats; the more temples/ceremonies one attends, the more
opportunities there are for making merit. Yet, how individuals maintain
their “merit portfolio” differs according to age, gender and life history.
For younger members of the community, attending rituals at numerous
temples was also a means of socialising outside of normal hours (such as
during Pchum Ben, the festival for the dead). Parents were even said to
split their children up, sending them to different temples, thus maximis-
ing merit-making activities.
As Ledgerwood (2012) demonstrates in her study of a Pchum Ben
ceremony in Kandal Province, the festival has become a means for rein-
tegrating the multitudes who died unknown and agonising deaths under
the Khmer Rouge. Temple rituals become a declaration of membership
in that unbounded group, reaffirming an individual’s commitment to the
group’s shared trials, or in the case of Pchum Ben, reintegrating the de-
ceased. What this membership also demonstrates is a shared vision of
Buddhist temples, even if it is an idealised vision, one that bridges pre-
and postwar Cambodia. It is both an ideal of continuity with the past and
a social critique of temples at which outside influence precludes and
excludes local activities.
 42 Matthew O’Lemmon 
Those activities include, first and foremost, the creation of merit.
Thus, the lack of monastic propriety (realistic or idealised) in one temple
(Wat CK) was a reason to patronise another (Wat KT), but not the mo-
tivation for attending either in the first place. Creating merit was the
catalyst which drove most villagers to certain wats and it was likewise this
ability to facilitate the creation of merit that was seen as evidence that
monks were true to their position in society. Those temples that strayed
from the ideal demonstrated by close associations with the rich and po-
litically powerful displaced the potential for merit-making acts among
locals, which brought corresponding criticism.
This is not to say that there can be only one ideal. Although not in-
terviewed for this study, political elites could have their own perspective
of what constituted an ideal, and perhaps Wat CK exemplified it. And
there are also temples that have a special status for all Khmers regardless
of social background; the temple complex of Oudong, for example,
holds a special place in Khmer antiquity. And while it is the recipient of
large amounts of money from Prime Minister Hun Sen, it nonetheless
receives patrons from all over the country.
As an institution, though, and one that a largely rural population
such as that of Cambodia relies on for spiritual, social and educational
support, the Buddhist monastery is a fundamental part of the lives of
many, and it is more than a place for special events or the occasional
festival. Merit-making addresses the real needs of local Khmers and acts
as a bulwark against the psychological and physical stress that comes
with a meagre and at times uncertain existence. Supplanting local partici-
pation brought criticism as it was proof of both a monastery’s “rich”
status – a stray from ideal behaviour – and the associated decline in its
ability to support local merit-making activities.
An event during Pchum Ben illustrates this point more clearly.
Around 4 a.m., a Khmer friend named Tommy and I bicycled out to Wat
CK for the morning ceremony which included monks chanting the
dhamma followed by attendees circling the temple three times and leaving
food on the ground for ghosts and spirits of the dead. On arrival, the
temple was completely silent, prompting Tommy to comment, “Sorry, I
think the monks must be lazy.” Not soon after, an older gentleman rid-
ing by on a bicycle stopped and expressed his discontent with the temple:
“The monks there [Wat CK] are no good, they take rice from the people
and then get rich.” Visibly dismayed as he had spent time arranging both
of our offerings the night before, all Tommy could say as we rode off
into the darkness was, “I won’t come here again.”
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 43 
When I went to the temple later that afternoon, it was hosting a
crowd of approximately sixty well-dressed people, many of whom were
from the Ministry of Cults and Religions (all the local ministries were
said to have booked time at the temple during Pchum Ben). It was a
festive occasion, as it was the twelfth day of Pchum Ben, towards the
end of the fifteen-day ceremony. Inside there was a much more charged
atmosphere than at other ceremonies I had attended. The achar read the
names of donors and their large donations, his voice blaring over the
loudspeaker amid the clatter of attendees that filled a nondescript salaa.
Juxtaposed against my experience that morning, the scene highlighted
local expressions of exclusion and what many perceived as a “rich” tem-
ple beholden to powerful groups where the ability to make merit was
significantly reduced.
Yet, that ability must be weighed according to what Graeber (2005:
451) calls “fetishism”, or the assumption that value comes from the
token involved and not from the individual. That is, the value attached to
an offering as opposed to the motivation to make one in the first place.
During merit-making activities, offerings are frequently weighed against
the context in which they are made. The building of a new temple or the
enshrinement of a Buddha statue, for instance, will generally elicit more
elaborate offerings than those on T’ngai Seul. And with greater status
comes even larger offerings, both real and expected, echoing Bowie’s
observation that “when rich and poor claim to share common ethical
principles, morality can become a weapon of the weak against the strong”
(1998: 475).
Could rural communities’ expectations of larger gifts by wealthy in-
dividuals be seen as a cause for a given political group’s patronage of
certain temples? The answer lies in the distinction between secular and
religious “gifts”. Infrastructure projects drew local support for the CPP,
but improvements to roads or irrigation canals were activities that people
expected to be undertaken by the government. Merit-making, however,
involved political organisations establishing relationships with the mon-
astery through direct material and monetary support, which distorted the
monastery’s moral authority and obviated local villagers’ ability to create
merit. Thus, while irrigation canals drew support for the CPP, the party’s
support for the monastery led to a backlash from the community against
certain temples. However, realistically, temples are also in no position to
turn political groups away without potentially offending those in posi-
tions of power, which could have even more severe consequences.
Even though the donations by people living near each temple could
not match those of outside groups, when the local community was ac-
 44 Matthew O’Lemmon 
tively involved in the lives of the temples, the shared sense of participa-
tion facilitated a shared sense of merit-making. Thus, when a Khmer
expatriate from the US made a large donation to Wat KT during Kathen,
the fact that locals were approached beforehand regarding a connected
ritual was what mattered. For locals, their being involved in the process
served to uphold their idealised image of the wat, enabled their attach-
ment to the offering, and transformed what was otherwise an individual
offering into a communal one. Influence by political and otherwise pow-
erful elites disrupts this cycle. Monks are seen as operating for the rich
and powerful while their role in merit-making activities is cut off vis-à-vis
those who need it most. The monastery is then criticised not because it
receives goods per se, but because it accumulates material wealth from a
segment of society that is already in a good position in this life while
creating a social barrier for another segment that is not.
The irony of the current situation is that the idealised image of the
monastery is threatened by Edward’s notion of a “racket”, described
above, via a political body that on the one hand acts as the protector of
the monastery, and on the other is made up of senior officials responsi-
ble for its dismantling under the DK regime. Traversing the twisting
road of Cambodian historical revisionism is perhaps the only way the
latent ideal and the racket could meet. Even so, the strategies ordinary
Khmers use to define their involvement and membership within temples
are not always straightforward, with new associations stretching the lim-
its of even unbounded groups. Further, if Theravada Buddhism and
engagement in rituals are means for Khmers in the diaspora to reaffirm
their ethno-religious identity (Thibeault and Boisvert 2010), then the
revival of the monastery demonstrates deep-rooted monastic moral au-
Monks at Wat CK admitted, though, that there were still some
among their ranks who entered the monastery for reasons other than
strictly Buddhist ideals. This is not necessarily unique to Cambodia, as
the monastery has traditionally been a vehicle for social mobility within
Theravada Buddhist countries (Tambiah 1973: 74; Suksamran 1982: 23;
Stuart-Fox 1983: 432; Hiroko 2009: 215–216). However, the social cohe-
sion nurtured through monastic service was also an important aspect of a
temple’s economy. As parents were said to patronise wats where their
children served, a son’s service fostered merit-making activities and rein-
forced bonds within the community.
A steady stream of shiny new Toyota sedans and SUVs filled with
politicians (usually CPP members) during holidays was the surest way to
prevent this temple–community cohesion and keep local villagers in-
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 45 
doors and away from Wat CK. Such events at Wat KT, however, were
infrequent and did not take on similar negative connotations. The man-
ner in which people would patronise Wat CK also influenced local per-
ceptions. Coming from outside the area meant the well-off had little
connection with the surrounding communities to begin with, while the
“give-and-go” manner in which they would arrive, offer gifts and then
quickly move on did little to facilitate interaction with locals. This was
somewhat different from the strategy employed by villagers when pat-
ronising several temples, given that their movements were on foot (or at
most by motorbike), resulting in longer stays and greater interaction with
Internal factors also played a role in shaping temple identity. For
Loak Loan, the educational and administrative features of Wat CK over-
shadowed its religious aspects: “Chum Kriel is different, that’s why there
[are fewer] people. It’s the same as Wat Kompong Tralach but different
– we go to school here, that’s it.” For many, the scholastic and adminis-
trative characteristics of the temple, the monks’ detachment and the
temple’s association with politically connected patrons were signs of
corruption and a lack of social order, further entrenched by displays of
Figure 1: Social Engagement and Merit-Making Activities
Source: Author’s own graphic.
These factors had the effect of turning the traditional/modern juxtaposi-
tion on its head. Traditional Wat KT with its inward spiritual focus was
 46 Matthew O’Lemmon 
nonetheless socially engaged with the local community given that monks
were from the surrounding villages and were regularly called on to per-
form rituals and life-cycle ceremonies. Wat CK, however, although more
engaged with the world academically, as seen in the temple’s high school
curriculum above, had little social engagement with surrounding villages,
resulting in locals going to outside temples for merit-making activities
(monks even admitted that they went to houses outside the immediate
area for their daily alms, as some local families refused to donate rice).
During the festival of Pchum Ben, a noontime meal at Wat CK had
been booked by the Ministries of Finance and Information (the previous
day it had been booked by the Ministries of Culture and Women’s Af-
fairs). The usual batch of vans and new cars filled the temple’s courtyard
as local children took the opportunity to play inside the vihear, which was
normally locked. In one vehicle came a monk from Phnom Penh who
had travelled to the wat to dole out donations on behalf of a wealthy
Khmer expatriate living in the US. Following lunch, dozens of monks
stood in a row facing the courtyard, each quietly accepting a donation
before making their way back to their quarters. Even though the dona-
tions distributed by the visiting monk were made by someone overseas
and not by a member of the government, the political presence was
more of an issue for many in the local community. One woman I spoke
with, Savang, smiled as she told me: “Hun Sen has a special relationship
with them [Wat CK]. He came here many times.”
“Hun Sen controls the state so he can give money, but monks vote
for Sam Rainsy because he’s against corruption. But he doesn’t build
anything”, said Loak Loan when describing politics and local support for
the CPP. Accepting patronage from one political party while voting for a
rival that is against corruption may demonstrate adherence to idealised
behaviour or even an internal politicising effort on the part of the mon-
astery. Nevertheless, at least in the case of Wat CK this acknowledgment
did not extend beyond the temple’s gates. Further, the at times over-
whelming political presence combined with the monks’ views that the
wat was a place for education as opposed to their “home temple” validat-
ed the belief that the monastery was bound to outside groups. Thus,
when political authority moved from the secular (building projects) to
the religious sphere, it generated expressions of disillusionment by locals
such as Savang, who sent her children on merit-making activities to other
What this avoidance and support for other temples showed, though,
was more than just a fluid resistance but a claim of right to define a mo-
nastic ideal when faced with the effects of political patronage. While
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 47 
local infrastructure improvements were appreciated and garnered sup-
port for the CPP, donations by political elites to Wat CK brought disap-
proval directed towards monks who were said to become “rich” through
those donations even though they were in no real position to deny such
patronage. This “antagonistic symbiosis” (Nissen 2008: 283), or resis-
tance to political influence and to the destabilising effect it can have on
monastic identity and temple/community relationships may appear con-
tradictory. Yet, through this social criticism, local villagers maintained
relations with wealthy, politically connected donors while simultaneously
expressing their disapproval of political influence within the monastery,
positioning the current state of the wat against images of the past – that
latent ideal of what the monastery was or was thought to be.
This criticism is not without substance. During Kathen following
the three-month retreat for monks during the rainy season, monks ac-
cept gifts of money, food and material goods as an act of gratefulness.
“We can go around and receive many gifts and finally leave the wat.
Monks like it the most”, as one monk at Wat CK put it. And although
enjoying gifts is not necessarily evidence of straying from a latent ideal,
the ceremony can be used as a means for acquiring material wealth. A
monk staying at a temple other than the one he normally resides at could
(and some do) use the occasion to receive multiple donations at both his
wat of residence and his home wat – and those with influential ties have
an even greater capacity to do so. Are the people giving gifts perpetuat-
ing less than ethical monastic behaviour in their acquisition of merit, or
are they merely performing a moral deed? And what of monks? Using a
ceremony to obtain material goods may seem at odds for those who
have taken a vow of poverty. However, as monks depend on outside
donations – and have a duty to inspire good moral character through
facilitating moral deeds – their actions can be seen as reasonable.
Nissen argues that the Buddhist logic of kamma and punishment le-
gitimises corrupt practices, which can be rebranded as gift-giving (2008:
285). If a bribe is a “gift” and a payoff a “donation”, then those commit-
ting the offense have, in fact, committed no offense at all but a moral
deed worthy of good kamma. Indeed, the fact that a person is in a posi-
tion to offer such a “donation” could be argued as evidence of the moral
deeds performed in a former life, legitimising what is otherwise blatant
dishonesty. Having spoken with numerous Khmers about this dilemma
in regard to the Khmer Rouge, I have come to refer to it as the “Cam-
bodian conundrum”: Those who performed wicked deeds during the
DK regime acquired titanic amounts of bad kamma for their acts. How-
 48 Matthew O’Lemmon 
ever, they acquired positions of power from which they performed those
wicked deeds because of meritorious acts performed in a previous life.
This riddle perpetuates corruption and may in some ways help to
explain the decades-long struggle to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice.
And while people can easily legitimise their corruption as rebranded gift-
giving, monks cannot. Overt political influence within the monastery,
therefore, is in Nissen’s words “a symbolic pollution of the sacred”, dis-
rupting the moral order to a greater degree than the routine, even ex-
pected, corruption of bureaucracy (2008: 287).
While the chomnoh of Wat KT could not prevent overtures by the
rich and powerful, the community was nonetheless such a constant pres-
ence that bypassing them was not an option. Wat CK, however, reflected
the observations related to Kent by a Khmer official from the Ministry
of Cults and Religions, who noted that inviting CPP officials was benefi-
cial for a new wat in Battambang in order to secure party support and
protection (Kent 2007: 347). Yet, overtures made by an abbot of another
temple to the rival party, FUNCINPEC (National United Front for an
Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia), led to a
lack of police security for a temple ground-breaking ceremony, disgrun-
tled local CPP members, as well as insolvency when a FUNCINPEC
official borrowed money from the wat in order to make donations to
other temples (Kent 2007: 347–348).
The fact that overtures were made to officials of the two main polit-
ical parties reflects the reality of rural villages dependent on political
patrons for support. How much of a presence locals would tolerate be-
fore a temple was labelled “rich”, though, depends also on the actions of
monks and their involvement in the local community. This appears to
delineate acceptable secular actions and unacceptable religious overtures.
Villagers may and often do accept infrastructure improvements, which
may garner support for the dominant political party. However, when
patronisation brings temples overt political association, locals direct their
discontent towards the monastery, placing the onus on temples for ad-
hering to the latent ideal while maintaining relations with government
entities that are expected to be corrupt but on which they depend. And
while it can be said that political groups establish their own relationships
via merit-making activities, or that local communities form associations
with temples just as strong as any political group, it is in the perceived
straying from the ideal – that “lament toward the current situation” (Ko-
bayashi 2005: 515) – that often characterises local perceptions and activi-
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 49 
The level of association and repetition of such merit-making activi-
ties, though, are significant factors in how those acts affect relationships
and perceptions of temples. An example at Wat KT alluded to above
involved a Kathen festival put on by a Khmer expatriate originally from
Kampot Province but with no direct connection with the wat. One
morning, ten large vans filled with passengers made their way to the wat,
which was filled with flowers and audio equipment for the event. The
individual putting on the ceremony was reported to have donated 5,000
USD to the temple. Unlike a similar Kathen festival put on by a local
government ministry at Wat CK, the expatriate’s festival at Wat KT was
a special event given the significant time spent travelling to the temple
and the fact that he specifically chose the temple over others. Further, as
the temple’s chomnoh was directly involved, the process became less about
the individual and more about the entire community, changing the out-
look of the festival from an individual to a collective effort through ex-
tending the expatriate temporary membership into the broader group.
As with Kobayashi’s (2008) definition of chomnoh, the openness of
participation and the fluid environment of Wat KT allowed for the
community to facilitate the inclusion of the expatriate’s festival, which
brought greater prestige to the temple in the eyes of locals. Whereas the
Khmer expatriate made a special trip to Wat KT one time (and would
probably not repeat), local ministries’ repeated patronage of Wat CK
reaffirmed the temple’s proximity to elite spheres. Thus, the lack of repe-
tition contributed to the sense of community within Wat KT without
diluting it; in addition, the temple has been able to satisfy occasional
special requests for membership whose infrequent nature has served to
garner respect rather than derision for Wat KT.
Political Economy and Social Networks
According to Sedara and Öjendal (2009: 124), political reforms have
reinforced non-democratic practices along patronage lines on the local
level while consolidating power by the CPP nationally. Ledgerwood
(2012: 202), similarly, cites disparities in wealth – which are more pro-
nounced today than in the prewar years – as driving both the pursuit of
economic opportunities and attachment to political patrons for protec-
tion. To some extent, the latter has undoubtedly been the case through-
out much of Cambodian history. However, the concentration of wealth
coupled with an increasingly interconnected Cambodian society has
brought many rural Khmers into contact with the politically powerful
 50 Matthew O’Lemmon 
through political groups’ association with certain wats and their increas-
ing presence in temple affairs.
These connections represent a considerable contrast to the pre-1975
social order, but as substantial change has been the hallmark of Cambo-
dian society since the latter half of the twentieth century, these shifts are
not necessarily surprising. Well-off city dwellers have the opportunity to
engage in more elaborate merit-making activities than before, thus they
are able to position themselves as patrons to their rural counterparts.
Likewise, the social networks of even rural villagers created through ex-
tended families and modern telecommunications can afford them greater
access to politically connected groups and resources. This in turn vali-
dates their client status as part of the process of reciprocity, further en-
trenching conceptions of status and role.
The political economies of the two temples in this study reflected
these changes and comprised two ways individuals and groups came to
associate with the monastery. Wat KT depended a great deal on support
from surrounding villages, drawing in individuals and groups through a
radiating web. Wat CK, though, could count on donations from wealthy
patrons, attracting affluent and politically connected individuals in a
more linear manner ranging from local-level politicians up to the prime
minister. Yet, as shown, this support is bifurcated, as it can garner back-
ing for politically funded infrastructure projects while working against
temples for being the recipient of political patronage. Wat CK was visit-
ed three times by Prime Minister Hun Sen, was the seat of provincial
monastic administration, and boasted a large number of resident monks.
However, this did not translate to greater numbers of local visitors. In-
deed, the opposite was the case: Its political economy was an exclusive
The burial at the wat of an army general killed in 1995 by the Khmer
Rouge on a highway near Chheuk District, forty kilometres outside of
Kampot Town, exemplifies this exclusivity. Although he did not have
any specific connection with Wat CK, his ashes were placed within a
large chedey (reliquary) that his family had built for him next to the tem-
ple’s vihear. Having his remains kept there was a sign of his wealth, while
the ability to afford a large chedey brought him an increased status in
death and likely enhanced the status of his family. The fact that the gen-
eral’s family had the means to build a chedey was also believed to keep his
spirit from wandering the countryside, an option normally unavailable to
poor, rural villagers. Given the general’s place in society, Wat CK was
the likely choice for a man in his position regardless of his actual associa-
tion with the temple. Thus, the temple’s vertical connections stemmed
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 51 
from the wat to influential outside groups who otherwise had little inter-
action with the rest of the community.
Although locals were not barred in the literal sense, traditional social
hierarchies and that invisible barrier dividing neak mean and neak aat mean
(the “haves” and “have-nots”) of Khmer society are still powerful social
forces defining associations throughout the country. Far from feeling
dispossessed, though, many close to Wat CK took on an aloof affect
regarding the presence of wealthy patrons. Savang, the local woman
noted above, commented that the temple was an “old person’s wat” and
not one young people would normally attend. Although she may have
justified sending her children to other wats for merit-making activities
this way, her statement also illustrates an important detail: While social
networks were not realistically open to local villagers, access may be a
moot point. Attempting to cross social barriers would almost certainly
start rumours in a community where local news travels fast and solidarity
over the latent ideal is strong. In such a context, the exclusivity of social
networks is linked as much to a desire to be a part of them as it is to
The web-like connections at Wat KT provided a different model
given its integration within the surrounding community. Local economic
engagement was high while the involvement of political elites was low,
save for rare visits and donations. The temple’s broad-based networks
were indicative of both the rural and somewhat detached environment
surrounding the temple and the interconnectivity of the commune.
Monks at Wat KT came from Prey Thom Commune; life-cycle ceremo-
nies in the surrounding villages were attended to by the temple’s monks,
who benefitted from local donations; and the temple’s primary school
educated local children while families participated in the wat’s functions
on a regular basis. For the Khmer expatriate noted above who put on the
Kathen ceremony, the ritual began with his initial engagement with the
community. Locals were part of the process, part of the economy, and
were recognised as having an ongoing relationship with the wat. Far from
being a temple surrounded by disconnected locals, Wat KT functioned
because of local engagement, not in spite of it.
Monks at both temples were taciturn regarding politics. In private,
they supported reform but were cognizant of the difficulties in bringing
about real social change. As Cambodia continues to juggle its allegiances
to outside powers in the quest for greater economic aid, greater political
intrusion into monastic affairs can be expected. Regardless of the cen-
trality of the Buddhist wat in the lives of Khmers, the need for an inde-
pendent monastery free from political influence is weighed against its
 52 Matthew O’Lemmon 
dependency on outside support, which has the propensity to bring both
pressure from influential groups and increased politicisation.
This paper presented a study of merit-making activities in two Theravada
Buddhist temples in southwestern Cambodia and the effects of political
influence in local Buddhist wats. The relationships that people established
with local temples were driven in part by a latent ideal of monastic insti-
tutions, which acted as a social critique of temples where political influ-
ence precluded merit-making activities by local villagers. This ideal, es-
poused by monks, politicians and laypeople alike, has been a hallmark of
Khmer monastic identity and continues to define relationships between
local villages, temples and powerful outside groups.
Whereas Swearer noted that middle-class laymen were critical of po-
litically active monks following independence in Ceylon in 1948 (1970:
262), criticism by Khmers in this study was directed towards monks and
temples which were the recipients of political patronage. This criticism
often manifested itself in peoples’ avoidance of “rich” temples in favour
of smaller, less solvent temples at which they performed merit-making
activities while keeping on good terms with political groups that provid-
ed money for local infrastructure projects. Criticism and avoidance,
therefore, demonstrated the continued importance of merit-making
activities for local communities while simultaneously acting as a claim of
their right to define what Buddhist institutions should represent. Thus,
while the latent ideal was a symbol of continuity, it also represented a
strategy of determinism.
The latent ideal also reveals how political economies and social
networks affect local wats according to status and an individual’s ability
to access resources through networks established via merit-making activ-
ities. The poor, rural status of the smaller temple in this study, Wat
Kompong Tralach, drew broad support from both locals and non-locals;
yet, local support and patronage outdistanced support from outsiders. Its
appeal expanded in a web-like fashion, radiating out among local villages.
Its integration within the local community ensured that it continued to
receive support while the limited political influence allowed it to retain a
level of notoriety without diluting its standing within the area. The other
temple in this study, Wat Chum Kriel, with its “rich” status, large size
and equally large number of monks, received far more in terms of out-
side donations. However, the status of its donors – political parties and
wealthy elites – adversely affected local support, resulting in a more line-
 Buddhist Wat in Southwestern Cambodia 53 
ar political economy. Local villagers felt disconnected from the temple
and the (more solvent) patrons who comprised its social network.
While political influence within the monastery obviates the ability of
locals to engage in merit-making activities, it also raises questions regard-
ing the ability of temples to remain independent. Do they have a respon-
sibility to reject what they see as undue political influence? Or does the
necessity for outside support make such influence an inevitable part of
development? These are difficult questions which monks at temples such
as Wat Chum Kriel deal with regularly. In the end, those within the
monastery have to contend with the fact that patronage by elites is a
double-edged sword, bringing prosperity to a temple while at the same
time alienating local villagers, who rely on temples and merit-making
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... The regime strives to coopt and control the religious actors of Cambodia as well. For example, temples belonging to the main Buddhist branches receive large regular donations from members of the political and business elite in exchange for political quietism and for suppressing oppositional voices in their ranks (Guthrie, 2002;Strangio, 2014, 199-204;O'Lemmon, 2014). The situation is not different regarding Islam. ...
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This article explores the characteristics and structure of the Cambodian Muslim social media scene and considers what they tell us about the sociopolitical setting of the country's Muslim minority. It focuses on how the relationship between Islamic actors of the Cambodian Muslim minority, that is, groups, movements and institutions, and their offline environment shape their online representations and proselytization activities. It particularly considers the observation that theological debate is almost absent in this Islamic social media scene compared to that of other Southeast Asian Muslim societies and attempts to find answers to the question of why this is the case. The article particularly examines the Facebook pages of various Islamic groups and explains the sociopolitical factors and language politics that inform the ways in which they formulate the contents and style of their posts. It shows how the close connections between the political and the religious fields in an authoritarian setting, where the state strongly discourages social discord, have the effect of largely muting debates on social media.
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Outline of a Theory of Practice is recognized as a major theoretical text on the foundations of anthropology and sociology. Pierre Bourdieu, a distinguished French anthropologist, develops a theory of practice which is simultaneously a critique of the methods and postures of social science and a general account of how human action should be understood. With his central concept of the habitus, the principle which negotiates between objective structures and practices, Bourdieu is able to transcend the dichotomies which have shaped theoretical thinking about the social world. The author draws on his fieldwork in Kabylia (Algeria) to illustrate his theoretical propositions. With detailed study of matrimonial strategies and the role of rite and myth, he analyses the dialectical process of the 'incorporation of structures' and the objectification of habitus, whereby social formations tend to reproduce themselves. A rigorous consistent materialist approach lays the foundations for a theory of symbolic capital and, through analysis of the different modes of domination, a theory of symbolic power.