Sam Rith and Sara Veal
When a determined group of classmates from the Pannasastra University of Cambodia set out to promote Buddhism through weekend get-togethers, they had no idea where their energy and enthusiasm would lead.
What started out as a small grassroots effort to provide courses in Buddhist morality has evolved into a full-fledged school where 600 students receive a free education.
The school, called Buddhist Morality Education Centre (BMEC), no longer focuses solely on religious studies. The curriculum includes courses in English conversation, grammar and translation, Japanese, Mandarin, human resources, general accounting, and, of course, Buddhist morality.
BMEC is staffed entirely by volunteers; eight of its teachers are college students and five are Buddhist monks.
The school is located in Tuol Tumpong sangkat but has branches in Kampong Speu and Kampong Cham. Students are mostly local high-school-aged youth who heard about the center by word of mouth.
“Friends told me they had a free program,” said Khem Sara, a 23-year-old who has been studying English at the Tuol Tumpong center for three months. “Now I understand a lot, but before I had never studied English. I hope to continue studying in the future.”
Some students are so inspired by the center that they hope to work there in the future.
“When I study at [BMEC] I feel happy. … I want to teach here,” said Leakena, 20, who has been studying English and Chinese for two months.
Currently, 600 students are enrolled, but Ieng Erya, chief of BMEC’s communications department, says the school has provided free education to more than 1,000 students in less than a year.
In June 2004, Sam Syann, the director of BMEC, started teaching Buddhist morality at Wat Botum Vadei with a group of classmates from Pannasastra University of Cambodia. Originally they called the group the Center of Buddhist Sunday because the founders were only able to offer classes on weekends.
After three months of teaching at the temple, they rented the Tuol Tumpong building in an effort to increase their accessibility and appeal. Synann paid the first month’s rent, and they borrowed supplies from Wat Botum Vadei for the first two months.
BMEC now has its own books, furniture and computers, thanks largely to donations from overseas Khmers and the local community. The Yuang-Kuang Institute for Buddhist Studies and Zhe Kuang temple, both located in Taiwan, have reportedly donated $280,000.
Some in the Buddhist community have expressed concern about Taiwan’s degree of involvement, fearing that they might have undue influence on school policies, but Synann is emphatic that this is not the case.
“It is not only Taiwan who supports the center, but others like America, South Korea and so on. … The government and most of the monks support what we are doing,” he said.
Thanks to the support, BMEC now has a savings account and plans to expand to Kandal province. The main building will cost an estimated $474,000, and the 3-hectare plot of land will cost up to $120,000. BMEC has $190,000 earmarked for the university project and is seeking additional sponsorship for the remaining funds.
The proposed university will provide free tuition and study materials, as well as subsidized housing. Synann said students will come from rural areas and if fund-raising efforts are successful, the university will also be able to provide them meals.
The focus of the university will be on Buddhist philosophy and literature, but there are plans to guide students in small-scale, income-generating enterprises as well.
The university will provide some raw materials which students can then use to make souvenirs. Any money they earn through this initiative can be kept or put into the school bank, and the earnings will be turned over to them when they graduate.
While it may seem odd for a religious school to assist students at making money, Synann explained that the idea was inspired by current students’ poverty upon completion of their studies.
“Our students [at BMEC] leave school with knowledge but no money,” said Synann. “This way, BMEC students can have money and knowledge.”