A Cambodian Spring: Buddhist monk defies authorities to defend the poor

The Venerable Loun Sovath is a Buddhist monk whose own order tells him he is a disgrace to his robes - because he walks alongside villagers marching against the corruption of Cambodia’s government. He’s at the heart of the documentary “A Cambodian Spring.”

In the new documentary film, "A Cambodian Spring", the Venerable Loun Sovath, a Cambodian Buddhist monk, bears witness to the struggles of his fellow citizens, he prays, and he documents protests online.  In doing so, he is accused of being a disgrace to Buddhism. That's the attitude not only of the government, but of some of his fellow monks and their superiors.

The protests are on behalf of the thousands of people who have been displaced by the development of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake.  For six years, filmmaker Chris Kelly documented the struggle against appropriation of land, destruction of the environment, and the threats to the safety and security of the people who lived around the lake.  The lake itself is no more; developers have filled it in with sand dredged from the Mekong River.  And the community that thrived there is now scattered.


Chris Kelly describes what took place over the course of his time in Cambodia. "Over the six years in the film, you see this landscape just be utterly destroyed. There's no more lake at all now … people's homes have just been flooded with water, they've been flooded with sand, they've been bulldozed to the ground; it's such an unsustainable model of development."

The Venerable Loun Sovath is a monk without a home, but for a different reason.  He was banned from living in his monastic community. His actions in support of the laypeople of Phnom Penh are deemed inappropriate by the Buddhist authorities.  He is even pursued by 'monk police' - an armed police force comprised of monks themselves.

But the declarations of the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch are suspect, according to Loun Sovath. "[It] is not easy to work for human rights, for protesting, for freedom of expression, and it is especially not easy for monks, to join in solidarity with laypeople, to advocacy for justice. The Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia is not independent."  

The Supreme Patriarch was appointed by the Prime Minister of Cambodia, and the developers of Boeung Kak Lake have close ties to the ruling political party. Loun Sovath, who is well educated in Buddhist precepts and law, is incisive in his analysis of what has been happening in Phnom Penh. Chris Kelly calls him a 'moral compass' for his fellow citizens.

For his part, the Venerable Loun Sovath says the Buddha himself would be supportive of the protests.  "The Buddha is the symbol of the protester...no power by gun, no power by army, but the power of the Buddha is the power for peace, justice, happiness."

"A Cambodian Spring" had its World Premiere at the 2017 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, and won the Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary.

Click LISTEN to hear Mary Hynes in conversation with the Venerable Loun Sovath and filmmaker Chris Kelly.