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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Religion, politics and race

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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