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The global fight for control of Phnom Penh’s Cao Dai temple

Ok Ngoc (left), with Kea Meng (second from left) and two other congregants. All of them bemoaned the pressure from Tay Ninh.
Ok Ngoc (left), with Kea Meng (second from left) and two other congregants. All of them bemoaned the pressure from Tay Ninh. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

The global fight for control of Phnom Penh’s Cao Dai temple

The removal of a statue of controversial figure Pham Cong Tac in a local Cao Dai temple was just the latest salvo in a clash between East and West.

Tucked away in an alley off of Mao Tse Tung Boulevard in the capital’s Chamkarmon district is a small temple that in recent years has found itself at the centre of a struggle for the spiritual and political control of an obscure Vietnamese religion known as Caodaism.

In the temple’s courtyard stands a wooden and glass gazebo on which an empty pedestal once held the statue of Pham Cong Tac, considered to be a prophet-like figure and founder of the temple, the first in Cambodia. The statue had been there since 2015 until authorities removed it in January this year, at the request of the head priest.

The removal was a decision that has provoked consternation among many followers in Phnom Penh, who for decades practised the religion free from the dictates of the Tây Ninh Holy See, the Vietnamese headquarters that is analogous to the Vatican for Catholics. Congregants and analysts view the decision as having come from next door.

“From 2004 until now, Tây Ninh took control,” says 69-year-old Kea Meng, who has worshipped there since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. “Those from Tây Ninh said that we are wrong . . . I’m not happy with it, and will not follow it.”

Meng and a group of other old-timers at the temple can be found drinking tea in the courtyard on most days, but they refuse to follow the rules imposed by the Holy See through the temple cleric.

Established in Tay Ninh in 1926, the monotheistic faith of Cao Dai is a hybrid of multiple belief systems, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Its “saints” feature a slew of religious and secular figures, including Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo. In 1927, King Sisowath Monivong permitted Pham Cong Tac, one of the religion’s leaders, to establish a temple in Phnom Penh, the first outside of Vietnam.

“Phnom Penh has played an important role in Caodaism,” says Dr Janet Hoskins, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California.

It was at this temple that Pham Cong Tac “held spirit seances . . . where the spirit of Victor Hugo first sent spirit messages to guide the development of the new religion. Hugo’s spirit was later appointed the ‘spiritual head of all overseas missions’,” Hoskins explains.

Later, when Tac found himself persecuted by the Vietnamese government, he was allowed to live in exile by the King, until his death in 1957. It was at the small temple in Phnom Penh that his remains lay until 2006, when the Vietnamese government had the body “returned” to a tomb in Tay Ninh.

The decision to bring his body back provoked controversy, as Hoskins has written previously, for two reasons: it coincided with the removal of Vietnam by the United States government from a list of countries that repress religious freedom, and it was against the wishes of some Caodaists who viewed Tac as having distorted the religion. Despite having welcomed the body back, the Vietnamese government is seen as viewing the idolatry of Tac’s supporters unfavourably.

The internal conflict at the temple in Phnom Penh can be traced back at least to the early 2000s, when a branch of Vietnamese-American Caodaists fundraised to restore the temple and secure the remains of Tac. They also donated the statue. Thien-Huong Ninh, professor of sociology at Consumnes River College, explains in an email to Post Weekend that the US-based group sees the Holy See in Tay Ninh as “a puppet of the Vietnamese communist government”.

Conversely, the Holy See considers “the statue as a threat to its authority, and thus re-asserted itself by forbidding the Kim Bien Temple in [Phnom Penh] from displaying the [Pham Cong Tac] statue”, she says.

According to Ninh, the Vietnamese-American group gave financial support to Caodaists in Cambodia and next door. This American-backed group allegedly “kicked out” the temple priest, after which the statue was reinstalled.

“What you have observed recently is most likely a consequence of this global competition for religious authority,” she writes.

Reached for comment as to why the police helped remove the statue, Chamkarmorn District Governor Thim Som An confirmed that a delegation of “Cao Dai experts from Tây Ninh” was recently invited “to explain the principles of the religion, and [after learning that worshipping the statue was wrong] we removed it”.

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Chreung Yaing Hwang, the head cleric. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Speaking to Post Weekend beside the now-empty shrine, Meng and his friends bemoaned that the change of administration at the temple has reduced the number of followers from hundreds to just 30 or 40.

“We want the temple to be just like before,” he says. But caught between two foreign powers vying for control, the followers in Phnom Penh “feel helpless”.

“The Tây Ninh side has the power, the money, [and] they have the government on their side,” says 63-year-old Ok Ngoc, another longtime congregant. But Chreung Yaing Hwang, the head cleric at the temple who supported the removal of the statue, throws similar accusations at the other side.

“We were against it [the statue] since the beginning, but could not do anything as they [the Vietnamese-Americans] have money, which they had used to bribe some [lawmakers] and authorities.”

Meng, showing a photograph of the statue before it was removed, points to the hands, which have been broken off. He and others opposed to the removal believe that the cleric “ordered henchmen” to vandalise the figure.

“Before, the followers were really united, they felt solidarity, before the Tay Ninh stepped in,” he says.

But for Ngoc, the change of administration causes a deeper, spiritual problem. “If you change everything how can you reach enlightment?” she says. “It hurts!”

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