Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Religion, politics and race

Wearing thin-rimmed spectacles and walking with an intriguing wooden walking
stick, Venerable Yourng Sin greets visitors to Wat Samekirainsey with a wise and
weary smile.
A string of ugly incidents involving Khmer Krom monks has
made the past weeks difficult for 72-year-old Venerable Sin, and as the wat's
chief monk, he's dismayed but still unbowed. Hidden down dirt roads in Stung
Meanchey district, Wat Samekirainsey is an all-Khmer Krom pagoda that, on
permission from its leader, allows its monks to orchestrate peaceful political
In fact, Venerable Sin encourages it.
"I allow
monks to demonstrate to show the responsibility of Cambodia for treating Khmer
Krom monks as enemies. The Khmer Krom are real Khmer," he said. "I came here 20
years ago and I have never done anything against the government. This is a last
option, but now we have no choice."
Like many Khmer Krom Buddhists, Sin
came to Cambodia seeking advanced study of the Dharma, unavailable in his native
southern Vietnam - what he calls Kampuchea Krom. Instead, he was jailed by
"Vietnamese agents" for attempting to start a political movement and spent ten
years - from 1979 to 1986 - in Takeo provincial prison.
Recent events
have stirred strong feelings at Wat Samekirainsey, and Sin is one of many who
believe the plight of the Khmer Krom is a singular issue that tugs at the
deepest notions of nationalism and reaches the highest ranks of
"If the Cambodian government is truly independent, they
wouldn't treat us this way," Sin told the Post on May 2. "I have to struggle
until Vietnam stops trying to eliminate our culture. This is not our appeal,
it's our right."
According to Sin, a demonstration staged at Wat
Samekirainsey on February 27 was the start of troubles to come. The protest was
meant to highlight religious oppression during a visit to Cambodia by the
president of Vietnam. The same night, however, a monk who participated in the
rally, Ning Sokhurn, died at his wat in Kandal under unusual circumstances,
activists and friends of the monk said.
"That night the police
investigated, but not seriously. His throat was cut three times, in three
different places, and they said it was a suicide. He was buried at 2 am in the
morning without an autopsy," said Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Khmer
Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organization. "We had no cooperation from the abbot.
He was under pressure and the people around the pagoda were under pressure, too.
They were afraid to speak out. We found that it was not a suicide, it was a
On April 20, another demonstration sparked violence. A protest
to highlight the situation of Khmer Krom monks was interrupted by Cambodian
monks in front of Wat Ounalom.
According to Ly Pal, a Khmer Krom monk
who described himself as leader of the Khmer Krom demonstration, the group was
confronted by a group of Cambodian monks, led by Sao Chanthol, deputy
municipality chief of the Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh and chief monk at Wat
"On that day Sao Chanthol showed up with about ten monks and a
body guard, even if he didn't start trouble his followers did," said Pal. "What
are people to think when Buddhists spill blood?"
A UN human rights
observer present on April 20 said it was "clear that monks were called in to
stir things up."
According to the rights worker, when the Khmer Krom
monks "obviously had a higher authority to confront the Khmer Krom monks."
But Sao Chanthol said by phone on May 3 that it was the Khmer Krom monks
who instigated the fight that left six injured and made headlines around the
"We were not ordered to disperse the demonstrators, our role on
that day was just to request that the Khmer Kampuchea Krom monks stop their
demonstration, because the internal rule of the Buddhist monks does not allow
monk to organize demonstrations or strikes," Chanthol said. "I did not disperse
the monks to satisfy anyone, as I have been accused. I am a Buddhist monk and I
know what is wrong and right. Those Khmer Kampuchea Krom monks did not listen
and they were the ones who showed up with violence."
Khmer Krom activists
and religious leaders believe the so-called crackdown on Khmer Krom
demonstrations comes from Hanoi's alleged influence on Phnom Penh.
It's a
"hot issue," some say, that could potentially destabilize relations with Vietnam
- and a tough situation for the ruling government.
After all, there are
native Khmer Krom in the highest ranks of government, and the territory was
Cambodian as recently as 1949 when it was allocated to Vietnam by the
According to the Khmer Krom Human Rights Organization, there are
1.5 million Khmer Krom in Cambodia and as many as 13 million in Vietnam, of
these 90 percent speak Khmer and 95 percent are Buddhist.
"We think that
Khmer Krom are Khmer, but because of the colonial regime that territory was
lost. Now Cambodia is a member of Asean, and its members are not allowed to
interfere in the internal issue of others," said Interior Ministry Spokesman
Khieu Sopheak. "We do have a feeling of family lineage, but we can't do any
thing above the law. There is nothing else to do but respect the law."

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