Learn more about the role of Cambodia's monks and follow links to further resources about AIDS prevention there.
Matthew Ozug is a documentary radio producer at Sound Portraits, where he's produced a variety of pieces including "Parents at an Execution," which won a Thurgood Marshall Award. Since 2004 he has also overseen the national MobileBooth tour for StoryCorps, the Peabody-award winning oral history project. Ozug graduated from Harvard and also studied at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. He traveled to Cambodia as a fellow of the
International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University.
Genocide trials have begun in Cambodia for the surviving leaders and officials of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970s. The "killing fields" of that era are what Cambodia is most known for internationally. But for years, the country has quietly held another frightening distinction: The nation with the highest AIDS rate in Asia.
AIDS was first identified in Cambodia in 1993. The virus spread quickly, with Cambodia's sex industry fueling the epidemic. To make matters worse, the nation's health care system, still reeling from the Khmer Rouge, struggled to respond. By some accounts, the regime left fewer than a dozen doctors in the entire country, which had an estimated population of 6.3 million. By 1997, Cambodia's HIV/AIDS infection rates had reached 3 percent of the population. Today, UNAIDS, the joint United Nations program to combat the AIDS epidemic, places that number at 1.6 percent. I went to Cambodia to explore the factors leading to the decline.
Map of Cambodia
By the late 1990s, the Cambodian government had begun to tackle the crisis head on, freely enlisting aid from international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and turning to a surprising local source -- Cambodia's community of Buddhist monks. I'd come across their work with people living with HIV and AIDS while researching my senior thesis on a very different group of monks: American Trappists. I was also aware of the HIV/AIDS work being carried out by monks in neighboring Thailand, where they continue to have a profound positive effect. But there was something particularly compelling about the work of the monks in Cambodia, whose very existence had been virtually wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. By 1979, an estimated 95 percent of Cambodia's monks were killed or intimidated into leaving the monkhood. The Pol Pot government set aside monks as a "special class" to be forced into labor or destroyed, along with their temples.
As we were editing this story, images began to surface from Burma (also known as Myanmar) showing thousands of monks leading mass demonstrations. It's this similar ability to galvanize people and shift public opinion that makes the Cambodian monks not only important caregivers, but powerful messengers in ending discrimination, spreading public health information and helping control the disease among the most vulnerable.
-- Matthew Ozug