“In Indonesia, they taught us three skills,” said Sot Chaya, sitting cross-legged in his monk’s quarters at Wat Samakki Raingsey on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “Commando, parachuting and guerilla warfare.”
Today, Sot Chaya looks like any other monk: robed, passive and head shaven. But beneath the religious garb is a soldier.
In 1995, at 26 years old, he was handpicked from Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s bodyguard unit and sent to Indonesia for 18 months of specialized training with the first group of Brigade 911 paratroopers, which would become one of the most ruthless and secretive forces in Cambodia.
“The training was non-stop,” Sot Chaya said in an interview Tuesday. “It wasn’t easy; it wasn’t funny. One hundred and thirty-two of us went, only 90 completed.”
Now 46, and eight months into the monkhood, the ethnic Khmer Krom journeyman speaks of a career shaped by politics and the bloodshed that has come with it—ultimately leading him back to Wat Samakki Raingsey, the pagoda his late father, Yoeung Sin, founded in 1997 as a haven for those with nowhere else to go.
“I became a soldier in 1988 because it was my obligation,” he said. “At that time, people were forced to become soldiers; if you failed school exams, you joined the military.”
First deployed as a heavy artillery gunner to finish off the Khmer Rouge’s northwestern resistance in the late 1980s, Sot Chaya said he fought for almost a year before being shot in the knee and sent back to Phnom Penh for treatment.
When healed, he was drafted into the bodyguard unit of Prince Ranariddh—or “Krom Preah”—and sent to be trained by the Thai military.
“Before joining ‘Krom Preah,’ we received special weapons and protection training from Thai special forces,” he said. “The training was all about sacrificing to protect the leader.”
Some two years after Prince Ranariddh agreed to be first prime minister in a power sharing agreement with then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen following the 1993 election, Sot Chaya was engaged in combat training with the Indonesian military, a brutal force during the 31-year rule of authoritarian leader Suharto.
Then, just weeks ahead of the 1997 factional fighting that would see Mr. Hun Sen seize the power that he maintains to this day, Sot Chaya returned to Cambodia a fully trained killer.
“I came back to participate in the fighting,” he said.
When he arrived at a military base in Kompong Speu province, however, Sot Chaya soon learned that his allegiance to Prince Ranariddh could put him in jeopardy. Forces loyal to Mr. Hun Sen—including members of Brigade 911—were on a rampage, with reports of torture and execution of dozens of Funcinpec loyalists.
With most military units still split along the lines that divided them prior to the 1993 election, Funcinpec’s top general, Nhiek Bun Chhay, attempted to instigate a revolt, he said. But the CPP, controlling most of the firepower, managed to suppress any uprising.
“At that time, I realized I had different ideas [to the government] and I tried to leave,” he said.
Sot Chaya did leave. But three months later, once the dust had settled on the fighting and Mr. Hun Sen was standing alone as Cambodia’s leader, the career soldier was co-opted back into Brigade 911, where he would serve until being transferred in 2005 to the notorious Brigade 70, which operated as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit.
“When they transferred me to Brigade 70, I was sent for more training in Thailand: special security training, intervention, and operating and protecting convoys [of vehicles],” Sot Chaya said.
In 2008, when he was 40, Sot Chaya said he was transferred to Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ Intervention Unit 2, the only period of his career that he refuses to talk about.
“I remain a member of Intervention Unit 2 until this day,” he said. “If the country faces a serious threat or I receive a request [from the government], I will respond.”
The monk served in the military full-time until late last year, when he took his vows and decided to move into his father’s pagoda. Now, he says, he is here to stay.
Yoeung Sin was willing to die for the Khmer Krom cause.
Born in 1935 in Vietnam’s Can Tho province—the part of Kampuchea Krom known in Khmer as Prek Russey—his dedication to the cause would completely shape Yoeung Sin’s life.
Indigenous to the Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam, the Khmer Krom have long had their religion, culture and language suppressed by Hanoi. But Yoeung Sin defied these restrictions. He was an unwavering advocate for the Khmer Krom way of life.
“He is the hero of all monks,” said Thach Setha, an advocate and opposition politician who stood alongside Yoeung Sin and later became president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community in Cambodia.
“Until now, we have not seen another monk like him. He sacificed his time, effort and spirit for his nation and for the Khmer Krom.”
Yoeung Sin’s resolve twice cost him his freedom. In 1976, in his home province in Vietnam, he was jailed for 3 1/2 years on accusations of plotting to topple the government. In 1984, he was arrested in Takeo province and sent to prison for two years, accused of leading the similarly ambitioned Khmer Serey movement in Cambodia.
“This is the life for Khmer Krom people who try to follow our culture,” said Ngay Sokrin, a 61-year-old lay priest, or “achar,” and longtime resident of Wat Samakki Raingsey.
“If you are an activist for the Khmer Krom, the Vietnamese government is always watching your activity and that is why many end up here at Wat Samakki Raingsey.”
In 1993, Yoeung Sin founded the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Monks Association in Cambodia, his anti-Vietnamese activism alienating him from Cambodia’s other Buddhist leaders, who are ostensibly free of political preference but in reality closely aligned with the CPP.
Then, in 1997, with abbots from Takeo to Phnom Penh unwilling to give residence to the outspoken monk, Yoeung Sin bought a block of marshy land on the western outskirts of Phnom Penh and laid the foundations for what has become the most politically active pagoda in the country.
“My father sold everything to build this place,” Sot Chaya said in his humble quarters, less than 100 meters from where his father’s body lays on display, preserved in a glass box. “When he died, he had $2 in his bag.”
On January 1, Sot Chaya, who had been ordained at a temple in Kampot province six weeks prior, moved back into Wat Samakki Raingsey—a place where he used to visit his father between jobs.
Twelve days after the former soldier arrived, a teenage monk stabbed to death one of the pagoda’s leaders, Thach Khan, apparently after being disciplined for dissent. Witnesses say Thach Khan had assaulted the young monk.
In the days that followed, Seang Sovannara, who became abbot when Yoeung Sin died in 2010, emigrated to France. His 27-year-old deputy, Thach Ha Sam Ang, was left to take charge.
“Maybe he left because of the murder,” Sot Chaya said of Seang Sovannara. “He was the chief monk here and one of his deputies used violence; therefore, he is involved in this crime. In Buddhism, there is no violence.”
Seang Sovannara’s appointment to succeed Yoeung Sin is also a point of dispute for Sot Chaya.
With activism rife—and most of it slanted against the CPP—the ruling party saw the death of Yoeung Sin as an opportunity to bring Samakki Raingsey into line with the rest of the country’s temples.
A government notice disseminated in October 2010 and signed by Non Nget, then the chief monk in Phnom Penh, dictated that a non-Khmer Krom monk, Khin Veasna, should take charge.
“This could not happen,” said Sot Chaya, who returned from his posting with Intervention Unit 2 to monitor the handover of power. “The chief monk must be Khmer Krom. That is the wish of my father.”
Seang Sovannara agreed, and by all accounts led the push to repel outside interference, threatening to tear down the giant blue banner of Yoeung Sin’s Khmer Kampuchea Krom Monks Association, which hangs inside the temple grounds, should an outsider take the job.
“Monks supported him after that, and that is how he took the power,” Sot Chaya said. “I did not agree, but I did not trust anyone else and I had to go back.”
Sot Chaya won’t say it outright, but he wants to take over the pagoda his father built.
“Today, this place is run like a dictatorship,” he said. “The leaders do not have the virtue required to maintain my father’s intentions. There is a culture of violence for discipline, and this is not Buddhism.”
Sitting on the floor in his bedroom, where just a few Kampuchea Krom stickers and posters decorate the moldy walls, Sot Chaya took a series of photos from an envelope—evidence, he said, of an attack launched on him the day after he arrived at Samakki Raingsey.
The photos showed a smashed glass door and the bricks that had apparently been lobbed through it and into his quarters—an act he believes was meant to push him out of the pagoda.
“They are scared of me and they have a plan for me,” he said, shaking with rage and alleging that Seang Sovannara and Thach Ha Sam Ang had been behind the attack.
“They treat me like an animal, but I am a human. This is my place. Why should I go?”
Thach Ha Sam Ang has big plans for Wat Samakki Raingsey.
At 27, he is the youngest of the three abbots to have ruled the dissident pagoda. While he acknowledges the work of his predecessors, he does so with a smirk and quickly moves on.
“We saw that Seang Sovannara had weaknesses in his leadership, so we will take his strong points only,” he said. “Regarding Yoeung Sin, my leadership style is different, but arrives at the same destination: the return of the land of Kampuchea Krom.”
Since Thach Ha Sam Ang took the mantle of chief abbot, the red dirt grounds of the pagoda have been paved over with concrete, construction of the stupa for Yoeung Sin’s cremation has accelerated, and the long-planned third floor of the pagoda’s main building is once again on the rise.
Under his leadership, the pagoda “will have more development and prosperity,” he said.
Shunned by the Buddhist hierarchy—and by extension the network of elites that do business with the government and donate to favored temples—Samakki Raingsey solicits most of its funding internationally, often through the numerous NGOs that support the Khmer Krom.
But people contributing from overseas want to know where their money is going, and while donors understand that Samakki Raingsey is going to generate negative headlines, they don’t expect the publicity to stem from internal battles.
“Ever since he arrived, it has been trouble, trouble, trouble,” Thach Ha Sam Ang said of Sot Chaya. “He became a monk not for peace, but to destroy our pagoda. He only wants power and he is illiterate.”
In February, Phnom Penh deputy governor Khuong Sreng visited Samakki Raingsey with municipal officials, who took the details of all resident monks and ordered that any new arrivals be reported to City Hall.
The visit came after Long Dimanche, the spokesman for City Hall, likened the activities inside Samakki Raingsey to the beginnings of a secession.
Mr. Sreng, however, said that his visit was to study the legitimacy of Samakki Raingsey and the murder of Thach Khan, who was one of the most active monks at the pagoda and was regularly on the front line of protests, including last year when Khmer Krom monks led the burning of Vietnamese flags in front of the country’s Phnom Penh embassy.
Thach Ha Sam Ang stopped short of saying that Sot Chaya had been involved in the murder, but offered accusations pointing strongly in that direction.
“We do not believe that a small reprimand caused this tragedy,” he said of the disciplinary action that apparently led to the murder.
“It is political, possibly on orders from the Yuon government,” he added, referring to Hanoi using an often pejorative term for Vietnamese.
The young pagoda leader suggested that Sot Chaya was just a pawn in a greater plot to destabilize the pagoda.
“He has been tricked by local authorities. They are using Yoeung Sin’s son to try and change the leadership, to destroy us,” he said. “The Yuon have promised him he would have control of the pagoda.
We have lived with him for six months now; we watch him and we know whom he communicates with.”
That theory—like many in the often paranoid world of the Khmer Krom—has moved fast around the pagoda. In fact, finding someone who does not believe that Sot Chaya has sinister motives for taking up residence is almost impossible.
“Less than one month after he arrived, my uncle was killed,” said Thach Sothon, the nephew of Thach Khan. “It seems to be bad fate. Ever since he came to stay in the pagoda, we have lots of problems. Monks and people here don’t like him.”
Taking a break from preparing lunch for the monks, Mr. Sokrin, the achar, complained that Sot Chaya had told them he would only be living among them for a fixed period of time.
“He said he wanted to be a monk for three months to prove that he is a good son. Now his time has expired,” Mr. Sokrin said. “Remain a monk but, please, do not make trouble.”
Not a single person at the pagoda said they could imagine Chan Sopheak, the 18-year-old accused murderer, having such violent tendencies. Some described him as a “playful monkey.” Others said he was a “gentle child.”
As for the attack on Sot Chaya’s room, Thach Ha Sam Ang, the pagoda chief, said despite feeling less than welcoming to the son of the pagoda’s founder, he had not ordered violence.
“He came to live here without an invitation, without permission, so someone went to ask him about that,” he said of the night of January 2. “I don’t know what happened.”
Welcome or not, Sot Chaya isn’t going anywhere. With his envelopes full of historical documents and photos related to the establishment and history of the rebel pagoda, the career soldier gives the impression that he is hunkering down for a fight.
“My father was expelled from many places before using all his energy to build this place,” he said. “But I will not be expelled.”
“It is up to the people in and around the pagoda to choose the leader, but it was my father who made the ultimate contributions. Is there any benefit in that?”