“So do you think Prime Minister Hun Sen is hiding other problems?”
“Yes, of course,” Soporm shot back. “If you think Phnom Penh has many poor people living on the streets, you go to the countryside and see how many beggars ask for help.” He then pulled out a mobile phone and showed me a minute of video footage depicting an old woman talking in a raspy voice. “Yesterday this lady came crying to me because she had not eaten in 3 days. Her husband died last year but she goes out to the fields every day to plant rice. She has no money to buy rice because her son takes the money that should be used for food and buys wine for himself.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I gave her some of my rice that I had collected back at the monastery,” continued Soporm. “No politician will feed her because they do not want to know of her existence. She is a survivor, but not a soldier. I do not understand why ex-Khmer Rouge members who are responsible for so many deaths in the past can suddenly become heroes if they say they are prepared to fight and die for Cambodia by defending Preah Vihear.”
With a hopeful smile, I added, “This lady can vote for another party this election. Cambodia is a democracy, isn’t it?”
Judging by Soporm’s reaction, I must have sounded ridiculous because he chuckled and stated, “No we are not. This is still a dictatorship. Many parties are just to show countries like yours that we can have elections too.” With a sigh signifying defeat, he concluded, “Maybe we should have only one party. People here already know who will win.”
Hearing stories like this is what cut deeply into my soul while living in Cambodia. Multiple numbers of four wheel drives with logos representing international aid agencies and electoral observers from the European Union frequently travelled on the national road connecting Phnom Penh and the town of Takeo. Countless numbers of open trucks representing numerous political movements used their megaphones to court residents with mottos and promises, and hand out leaflets. How many of them stopped to listen to experiences like Soporm was exposing me to? How many of these officials actually knew of such conditions that residents endured? And what was the extent of my responsibility now that I had spoken with somebody who in public remains impartial, yet was secretly telling me about his own political aspirations?
Suddenly he turned and felt the sleeve of my shirt with his thumb and forefinger. My initial thought was that I should give him the shirt off my back.
“David,” he began, “Please help me. I need money for clothes.”
At that moment, my eyes darted around in earnest, desperately looking for signs of a passing moto driver and an excuse to leave the scene at this awkward moment.
“Well,” I began, remembering that I had only 1,000 Cambodian riel and $USD20, “I don’t have much riel.”
“U.S. dollars are okay for me,” responded Soporm.
And here was my moral dilemma. Without the US dollars, I had no way of travelling to Phnom Penh. I glanced over to the coconut vendor across the road, but even though he probably had local currency, he would need to sell 40 coconuts to obtain 80,000 riel just for me to get some change. Giving the monk the solitary 1,000 riel note would seem like an insult considering how much he had shared with me. I may as well give him nothing and be prepared to accept any bad karma as just desserts, I thought.
And that is exactly what I did.
“I’m sorry, but I have only enough to get me to reach Phnom Penh.” It was obvious that I was lying severely to protect my own interests and I could tell that the monk could see right through my intentions. However, he chose to smile and say that it was alright.
After excusing ourselves by saying that we had other destinations to reach, my sojourn with the young monk ended meekly. This is only appropriate considering the scant amount of attention I paid to a simple request. Indeed Soporm was right; I do not know what it is like to be poor, and like so many, I ignored the plight of one in need and demonstrated how much extra study I still needed to master the art of respect.