Somaly Mam, an impossible hero

Somaly MamI think everyone by now probably has heard about the scandal surrounding Somaly Mam.

This got me into pondering: how likely it is for a young girl in Cambodia sold into sexual slavery to not only break free from her ordeal but also one day rise up to become a superstar hero like Somaly Mam?

Well, first, in her past life– assuming there is such a thing– she’d have to have been an American, Western European, or a citizen of another country that holds things like justice and human rights in the highest regard. She couldn’t have been Khmer– at least not one brought up in Cambodia– because Khmer people tend not to be too concerned about these things.  These values are largely Western and Judeo-Christian in origin, although they’ve been successfully incorporated into many successful Asian societies like Singapore, Japan and South Korea.

Second, she’d have to somehow carry these ideals over into the present life– the one in which she is unfortunate enough not only to have been born into a poor, third-world country but also to suffer the fate of a sex slave.  Being deprived of childhood education– it’s not like being educated in Cambodia would have mattered, anyway– she’d have to rely on her supernatural awareness and conviction of justice somehow retained from her previous life to drive her to not only escape her extraordinary ordeal but also one day devote her life to help others in similar circumstances.

Of course, these scenarios are possible only through a Hollywood movie. And it’s not surprising that Somaly Mam’s stardom was largely created and propped up by the Western media. The beautiful people from Hollywood were eager to project their own romantic ideals onto a real Khmer person, and Ms. Mam was smart enough to exploit the opportunity (but not smart enough to foresee that she would be exposed someday).

I’ve lived in Cambodia for much of the last six years and have come to know this country well…all too well, I’m afraid. Somaly Mam, the hero savior of Cambodian sex slaves, is pure fantasy.  Given the culture, mindset, and conditions that characterize this country, there is simply no way that a real Somaly Mam can exist in this country. Not yet, anyway.

Truth be told, what Somaly Mam did was not nearly as bad as some of things people do here on a casual basis. Whether or not she had lied about her past, her work has contributed positively to the awareness of sexual exploitation in Cambodia, which is a reality, not a fabrication.

Additionally, we can’t blame the beautiful people from Hollywood for getting fooled by Somaly Mam; after all, their hearts were in the right place. Even as someone who was born in Cambodia, I too have been fooled by Khmer people. Big time.



What is a “Buddhist”?

Cambodia is said to be 95% Buddhist. All my life I’ve always considered myself Buddhist, so I figured I’d be in good company by moving back to my native country.

Boy, was I wrong! I’d find that I’m constantly at odds with the way the locals think and go about with their lives.

I’ve always thought of Buddhism as a religion of compassion, sharing, moderation, tolerance and overcoming ignorance. However, if you look at poor Buddhist countries like Myanmar, where there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis stemming from the so-called “Buddhist” persecution of Muslim minorities, you’d see that “Buddhism” is just a label, a religio-social identity. Their actions have nothing to do with Lord Buddha’s teachings.

In fact, there is so much greed, suffering, ignorance, intolerance, and injustice — the very things that the Buddha tried to eliminate– in many of the poor, predominantly “Buddhist” countries that it would be appropriate to consider them anti-Buddhist, rather than Buddhist.

Oftentimes, Buddhism is used as a vehicle to promote superstitious and non-Buddhist practices like black magic and fortune telling. Just as Haiti is said to be 90% Christian and 100% voodoo, Cambodian Buddhism is steeped in the animist beliefs and practices that existed long before Buddhism was was introduced. Not surprisingly, many of the animist practices, while often contradictory to the teachings of Lord Buddha, came to be known as simply “Buddhist”.

To me Buddhism is just a way of life. First, we must understand Lord Buddha’s teachings. No, he did not teach his followers to hate people of other religions, believe in the supernatural powers of trinkets and magical incantations, and things of that nature. Then, we must try to incorporate this teachings in our everyday lives, on a moment-to-moment basis. If everyone did this, the world would be a much better place for everyone, not just for people but for all sentient beings. That’s the idea, at least.

The Buddha simply taught people to share, moderate, seek knowledge and understanding, and have empathy for others so as to alleviate suffering in the world. To the extent that things like greed, ignorance, deceit, injustice, material excesses, and other anti-Buddhist realities abound in a country, how could it be considered “Buddhist”? Perhaps only as a religio-social label that has nothing to do with true knowledge and following of Dhamma.

That there is so much suffering in anti-Buddhist states attests to the truth of Karma.