Em Phoeung

Monk Em Phoeung Testified Against Khmer Rouge Genocide

Em Phoeung survived through the Khmer Rouge regime and, forty years later, is testifying in Cambodia Courts against the perpetrators of a horrific genocide.

A Buddhist monk has given a face to the persecution endured by followers of his religion during the extreme socialist Khmer Rouge regime. Em Phoeung told the court about being forced to watch as the party turned Buddhist pagodas into prisons, to perform manual labor while wearing his holy robes, and ultimately to accept being stripped of his religious office entirely when the regime outlawed what had been the national religion.

Forty years after Pol Pot’s Communist Party took over Cambodia and killed more than a quarter of all Cambodians in a horrific genocide, surviving party leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are standing trial for crimes against humanity. Phoeung described the horrific way his countrymen had to watch as their religion was systematically dismantled. Over the course of nearly four years between 1975 and 1979, every Buddhist monk was removed throughout the country and forced to farm, build, dig, and otherwise participate in labor jobs as needed by the regime. However, Em Phoeung continued to secretly pray during this time.

The Khmer regime sprang from North Vietnam’s Communist Party. Pol Pot and the other Khmer Rouge leaders knew religion was bad for the regime. Religion provides an authority higher than the government, which would have detracted from the total domination desired by the communist party. In his testimony, Phoeung said the basic philosophy was that “religion would lead to no progress at all and there would be more free people who would just sit still and enjoy food offered by other people.

Em Phoeung shared the contradiction that despite having been forced to dishonor his religious calling, he was called on to perform a mass wedding ceremony for those of the regime. At one point, the monk was nearly forced into a marriage of his own, but he was able to avoid it by claiming there was suspicious magic involved. After the Khmer Rouge was finally ousted in 1979, the remaining Buddhist monks returned to their posts to help provide religious comfort to the surviving Cambodians. Today, the Venerable Em Phoeung is the chief monk for Kampot province.


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