Monks spread word on AIDS

by Chan Kit Tze, The Star, April 17, 2005

Monks in Cambodia are providing care and support for Cambodia?s AIDS orphans, writes CHAN KIT SZE who visited the Thmey Pagoda Salvation Centre in Siem Reap recently.

Siem Reap, Cambodia -- TRADITIONAL Cambodian music greeted us as we entered the shrine hall of Thmey Pagoda in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The musicians were seven to nine-year-old boys sitting at the far left of the hall, intently playing traditional Cambodian musical instruments. Later, we found out that it was the children's first public performance.

<< MONK?S VIEW: Venerable Hoeurn briefing the young journalists on his work with people living with HIV/AIDS.

The Salvation Centre, which is a non-governmental organisation, works with the monks at Thmey Pagoda, to provide support services for people living with HIV/AIDS. They run an orphanage for children either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. 

The musicians who greeted us were either AIDS orphans, or have parents infected with HIV from the orphanage. They attend school in the morning, and learn to play traditional Cambodian music in the afternoons. 

Cambodia is one of the countries most severely affected by the HIV/ AIDS epidemic in Asia. It is estimated that Cambodia has over 160,000 people living with HIV /AIDS, and more than 60,000 children orphaned by AIDS.

The Salvation Centre works together with different communities in Cambodia to carry out HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, care for children infected and affected by the disease, as well as other support services.

The visit to the centre was part of the programme for all young journalists from East Asia and Pacific attending the 7th Ministerial Consultation on Children organised by the United Nations Children?s Fund (Unicef) in Siem Reap. 

The Salvation Centre was started in Battambang by the Buddhist monk Muny Van Saveth in 1994. He first initiated projects to help the children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. 

However, the number of AIDS orphans keeps going up in Cambodia, and Muny realised that he needed to enlist communities to combat AIDS.

In 2000, with support from Unicef, he began training monks, along with nuns and laypeople, in HIV/AIDS prevention and home care.

Hoeurn Som Nieng is one of the hundreds of Buddhist monks trained to educate people about HIV/AIDS to reduce the stigma and to promote care and compassion for the victims. 

?I want to be able to restore confidence in the victims. I am happy when they are happy,? said Hoeurn. .

Buddhist monks are highly revered and respected by Cambodians, and are able to spread AIDS prevention messages effectively through home visits. People are more willing to share their problems and request for help as monks are highly regarded.

?The monks? position of respect in Cambodian society has contributed to our success in reaching out. People open their doors for us because they trust us,? said Hoeurn.

Last year, monks working with the Salvation Centre visited over 7,000 households with AIDS prevention messages.

Monks also try to address the psychological distress caused by HIV/ AIDS by providing training in meditation techniques and by teaching the Dharma, the body of teachings expounded by the Buddha.

However, meditation is optional because not all those infected are Buddhists. 

At the monastery we visited, the monks and Salvation Centre runs a temporary healing centre for HIV-infected patients seeking treatment at the hospitals in Siem Reap.

Many of those infected are poor and live in rural areas, and cannot afford to commute to the hospital. So, they stay for about two months at the healing centre while undergoing initial HIV/AIDS treatment because doctors need to monitor their response to their medication.

The healing centre, built and funded by Unicef, provides free accommodation to between eight and 12 families each month.

When Boudra, 39, discovered that she was HIV positive almost two years ago, she was devastated as she could no longer care for her 15-year old daughter.

Instead, the teenager now has to work as a maid to pay for her mother?s expenses, including Boudra?s fares to Thmey Pagoda. 

Boudra, who was staying at the healing shelter, will have to leave in about three weeks as doctors are assured that she could take her AIDS medication unsupervised at home. 

She is, however, reluctant to leave because she is free from stigma and discrimination at the Salvation Centre. They received care and were treated with dignity. But most importantly, they have hope. 

?Monks have peace, and we would like to give peace to others,? explained Venerable Hoeurn. 
For more information on the Salvation Centre's work, e-mail