Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Sacred Bribes and Violence Deferred: Buddhist Ritual in Rural Cambodia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Sacred Bribes and Violence Deferred: Buddhist Ritual in Rural Cambodia

Article excerpt

'We are afraid to have the dances because the kids come to fight. They're not afraid. They come with axes and knives--people get hurt.' (Male villager, 48)

In a rapidly modernising Cambodia, Buddhist celebrations are sites where the troubles and triumphs of the momentary world strike against both tradition and the contingent future. At the traditional dance parties that accompany large temple celebrations these metaphorical strikes can turn to actual blows as young men fight with fists and knives for reasons that remain opaque. In 2010 local authorities' inability to contain youth violence at such dances led the provincial government of Kampong Chhnang to ban dance parties at Pchum Bind temple celebrations. (1) Yet, on the last day of the 15-day Buddhist celebration at the Temple of Grandfather Flowing Water in Sambok Dung, a village in western Cambodia, (2) a Buddhist monk arranged to bribe local officials for permission to allow the dancing. The bribe was collected by two 'acary (3) (pronounced 'adja') as if it were a religious offering, with the attendant objects and words of that small ritual act. This ritualisation arose spontaneously in the face of an exuberant crowd gathered for revelry; it met the communally expressed desire for a party, addressed the ban on dancing, and momentarily contained the violence of a rapidly changing social order.

Once they raised enough money the music began and people young and old danced outside, slept and gossiped inside, and filled the temple complex until the small hours of the morning. Senda, aged 73, relaxing inside the temple told me, 'It is just like the celebration should be; like it used to be, with all of us dancing together and happy.'

This paper is concerned with a moment in which the continued salience and effectiveness of Buddhist traditions was activated in the face of increasing government impotence and the growing incidence of violence among Cambodia's disenfranchised young men. Thirty years of war entailed the dismantling of religious structures under Pol Pot, their strict containment under the Vietnamese, and their social revival amid political cooptation through the 1990s. Nonetheless, the Buddhist moral framework continues to adhere to the definition of a just ruler. Such was the case before and after the French, (4) before, after and, in a distorted fashion, during the Khmer Rouge, (5) and these same sentiments continue today, despite the efforts of colonialists, communists and modernists to marginalise the political authority of Buddhism in Cambodia. (6) In her essay, 'Gaps in the world', Anne Hansen attends to the ways in which Buddhist ideas negotiate a disorderly world wherein the problem of 'extreme social violence (and its eventual cessation) is connected to the trajectory of the Dhamma in time and relative to the past and future history of human moral behavior.' (7) Bureaucratic institutions built on Western models cannot respond to issues of morality. Invocations of human rights notwithstanding, the institution of a democratic system of governance and the advancing global marketplace have produced neither peace nor prosperity for most Cambodians; violence continues to be a part of daily life.

After the violent disruptions of the Pol Pot years, the temple was the first centralised node of authority to emerge in the rural areas, and despite the powerful narratives of state, market, and monastic decadence, the continuing revival of Buddhist tradition and authority still defines normal social life among the villagers in Sambok Dung. (8) The events described in this paper may also signal a bourgeoning boldness among provincial monks noted also by Alexandra Kent in Battambang Province. (9) My focus here however is not with the monk in this story, but rather with the charged moment in which he acted, and with the deployment of ritualised acts that invoked Buddhist morality and smoothed disruptions to the traditional celebration, allowing it to proceed 'like it used to be'. …

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