Ven Keo Bun, right, is threatening to set himself on fire.
dispute between a group of 500 Vietnamese who moved into a vacant pagoda and a group
of Cambodian monks now resident there has escalated into threats of self-immolation
by a head monk, amid charges of violence, racism and verbal attacks on a human rights
Around two hundred angry protesters, including monks, paraded on March 27 from Wat
Chak Angre Leu to Phnom Penh Municipality, demanding the government remove the Vietnamese
from the pagoda.
The protesters marched along the street to the Vietnamese Embassy, Phnom Penh Municipal
court, Council of Ministers and Phnom Penh city hall, carrying banners abusing ethnic-Vietnamese
in Cambodia, and urging the Cambodian government to send them back to Vietnam.
The protesters echoed comments that have been prevalent in the Khmer media recently
that the human rights group Licadho was ignoring the complaints of Cambodians in
favor of ethnic-Vietnamese.
It is a charge Licadho director Eva Galabru denies. She said that they had come across
the dispute by accident, had explained to the Vietnamese that there was a Supreme
Court decision evicting them from the land, and had encouraged both sides to settle
the matter peacefully.
However it is a message that was ignored by the protesters.
"When Yuon encroach on Cambodia, they [human rights groups] never say any word.
When Yuon beat our sacred monks they keep quiet. But when we just simply hold the
demonstration against illegal Yuon they yell at us [saying] we are discriminatory
or racist," one of the monks said over the microphone as he was standing in
a truck with other protesters.
"Why do they block our brothers [the demonstrators]. We just want the government
to remove Yuon from the pagoda," said the monk, referring to police who were
trying to prevent the protesters from moving into the compound of the city hall.
"Does your brain have a problem [referring to the police support for the Vietnamese]?
If so, you should clean it up," he said, causing the crowds to burst into laughter
But the dispute is serious, and Galabru fears it could turn violent.
Feelings have been running high among supporters of the pagoda - Lim Heng, 68,
from Kampong Cham province, was one of those at the rally. He said he was extremely
angry with the Vietnamese, who had allegedly thrown stones at monks.
"I am too old to walk such a long way as this. But I can not stay still when
I have seen another nationality harm my religion," he said while sitting on
the ground, resting.
Heng said the pagoda was his favorite one and he traveled to it often.
He said the dispute became more serious when a fight between the Vietnamese and the
monks broke out on March 12. A monk had tapped a car which was parked in the compound
to signal that the driver should move his car so the monk could clean the area in
preparation for a ceremony.
Heng claimed a large number of Vietnamese came out of their houses and stood defiantly,
staring at the monk. He said they carried sticks, knives, and stones, then an argument
started and the Vietnamese started throwing stones at the monk, who was slightly
He said one week later, a drunken man argued with two pagoda boys and cut their hands
with a knife.
Keo Bun, Chief of the Monastery of Chak Angre Leu pagoda, claimed the Vietnamese
had discredited the Buddhist religion in different ways. For example they raised
pigs, drank alcohol, ran Karaoke and often had sex on the grounds of the temple.
Bun said he had complained to authorities including the Phnom Penh City court but
he had not had any help.
The argument led the monks, the Cambodian pagoda supporters and the Students' Movement
for Democracy to hold the demonstration.
"I am happy now. But I will burn myself if the authorities can not move the
Vietnamese within a month," said Keo Bun after the meeting.
The monk was asked to file another complaint with the Phnom Penh prosecutor and to
deliver another letter to local authorities demanding the removal of the Vietnamese.
Keo Savoeun, chief of the commune of Chak Angre Leu, said that the Vietnamese themselves
now promise that they will leave the pagoda in one month [by April 25]. But they
need him to write them letters saying they have been living in Cambodia for years.
He said he is happy to do that in exchange for their departure, but said his letter
will not be useful for them. It could only tell other Cambodian authorities that
they were in Cambodia when they moved to resettle in another place.
"To make them go I would like to write for them. But this letter will not say
those Vietnamese are legal immigrants. It will just say that they used to live in
the squatter community," Savoeun said.
He said about ten rich families had moved to Prek Pra, on land that the Vietnamese
Association managed to obtain for them for the price of $ 2,000. Others will move
into Phnom Penh City to rent houses and most of the poor will move to Sa-ang district
in Kandal province.
Pon Pol, 50, a local militiaman who was watching the Vietnamese houses being removed,
said that in the early 1980s there were only three Vietnamese families living in
the pagoda, and there were no monks at the time. But later the number amounted to
almost 200 families.
Chung Hy, 32, who was dismantling his house, said he was going to move and stay temporarily
with his Vietnamese furniture employer at Boeng Trabek, as he only earns 5,000 riel
per day and would not have enough money to pay rent.
He expected help from human rights groups who he said often visited his village and
promised to find them a place to settle down.
" We just need a small piece of land - enough to fit our small house only. We
don't need them to help us with the construction material. But now they are quiet,"
Hy complained. He said he had come to live in the pagoda in 1985.
He said: "It is because we are Vietnamese, that is why they are chasing us away.
I know many Cambodian people are living in the pagoda too, but they do not chase