(This is a piece I’ve just written as part my current and ongoing project, a study of Cambodian religion and belief. It deals with bonn and kamm, which form part of a nexus of values which govern much of Cambodian life. They’re based in Buddhism, but you won’t find them discussed in any textbook on Buddhism. Nor so far as I know is there any book on the market that explains these things for the interested layman)
(which is why I’m writing it).
Bonn means merit. It is not, however, merit as the West understands it. It is specifically Buddhist merit, the sort acquired through giving food to monks every day, through building new buildings at the local monastery, and other acts demonstrating devotion to the Teaching.
Bonn is acquired in this life but also inherited from past ones. The bonn of past lives accumulates, and accumulated bonn leads to a meritorious incarnation with status, wealth and power. Bonn is like a credit balance in the spiritual bank: people who possess it can escape the consequences of actions that might logically land them in jail.
Kamm should mean karma, the inherent result, good or bad, of actions. It does in the textbooks, but not in real life, not in Cambodia. In Cambodia kamm means bad luck. Not bad luck in the sense of unfortunate events, but bad luck as a very real, if impalpable, store of misfortune that accumulates in the individual so that he attracts bad events the way a magnet attracts nails.
The following story is about kamm and bonn and everyday Cambodian life.
On the afternoon of Friday 3, March 2013, a young female medical student hit a motorbike near the Independence Monument traffic circle in Phnom Penh. No doubt panicking, she sped off down Norodom Boulevard, with the police in pursuit. At the Ministry of the Interior she lost control of the vehicle, mowed down nine motorbikes and four bicycles, and crashed into the wall. Three young children were killed on the spot and another eleven people seriously injured. The driver was taken inside the Ministry building to save her from the enraged crowd.
Three months later, on 12 June, Keam Piseth Narita was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “driving causing death and serious injury.” The judge, noting that Miss Keam had been taking medication at the time and that this had made her drowsy behind the wheel, suspended the remainder of her sentence but issued a fine of six million riel ($1,500), which would go to the State.
Her father, the deputy director of Kandal Provincial Hospital, paid compensation to all the families of the victims, all of whom withdrew their complaints. (See this illuminating article from the PPPost relating to events of the Monday following the accident). According to one informed source the compensation amounted to $20,000 – a sizable amount even for the director of a hospital.
Piseth Narita served just one month for each life taken. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told the Phnom Penh Post that he felt the judge was far too lenient. And it was true that the compensation paid to the families could not bring the dead children back. But neither could sending Piseth Narita to jail for three years. Indeed, jail would have served no purpose other than revenge.
Yeng Virak (no relation – the first is Mr Ou and the second is Mr Yeng, and they share the same personal name, Virak), executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, took a contrary view, pointed out that Piseth Narita, who had not intended to kill anyone, had been given the maximum possible sentence for her crime. Indeed, he said, the fact that the driver was tried and sentenced at all marked a major improvement. “To me, it’s quite, quite fair. If she commits the same thing in the future, she should be severely sentenced.”
Such arguments belong to the realm of law and justice. On the spiritual plane, Piseth Narita’s life had filled with kamm. Kamm allowed the terrible events to happen. Had Piseth Narita been a young woman of no social position she might well have gone to jail, but she was not. Her position in society was proof of that. Piseth said, and I believe her, that she deeply regretted what had happened and wished to complete her medical training so that she could help Cambodia’s poor and unfortunate. It was fortunate that she and her father possessed an ample store of bonn to overcome her kamm.