Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam of colluding in the oppression of the Khmer Krom minority in both countries and of using an increasing level of violence to put down protests and deter peaceful opposition.
In a report tracing more than two years of rising friction between the Khmer community of Vietnam and authorities on both sides of the border, the New York-based rights group said Khmer Krom Buddhist monks seeking greater religious and personal freedoms had been unfairly jailed, defrocked, deported, beaten, threatened and, in at least one instance, killed in suspicious circumstances.
“Because of the affinity between most Cambodians and the Khmer Krom from Vietnam, Cambodian government officials have tolerated a degree of political activism by Khmer Krom in Cambodia—as long as it does not anger or jeopardize Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam,” wrote the authors of the report, titled “On the Margins: rights abuses of ethnic Khmer in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.”
“However, after Vietnam’s harsh response to peaceful demonstrations by Khmer Krom monks and land-rights activists in 2007, the Cambodian government launched its own crackdown on peaceful protests by Khmer Krom monks after some fled to Cambodia and began to publicly denounce the abuses they had suffered in Vietnam,” the report states.
Citing confidential internal documents prepared by Vietnamese security officials, Human Rights Watch asserted that Vietnamese agents have long operated within Cambodia in cooperation with the government to identify “cells” of “reactionary” Khmer Krom and devise “effective measures of interdiction and management.”
The Vietnamese Embassy declined to comment Wednesday, saying it had not yet reviewed the report, while Cambodian Buddhist and government authorities repeated blanket denials of abuse.
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and president of the government’s human rights committee, said he too had yet to review the report’s contents but accused the organization of drumming up publicity, and denied its charges.
“They should not say we here are uneducated, and I will be happy if they show us the evidence,” he said.
One of Vietnam’s 54 officially recognized minorities, as many as 1 million ethnic Khmers are believed to live in the Mekong Delta, once Cambodian territory that was subsumed into Cochinchina during the French colonial era and later became the southern part of Vietnam.
Though official Vietnamese policy is to promote Khmer Krom religion and culture, the ethnic minority has suffered decades of dispossession, poverty and discrimination, according to the report’s authors.
Prone to nationalism, Khmer Krom Buddhists in Vietnam have also increasingly sought to wrest control of their religious practices and celebrations from Vietnamese authorities, who maintain strict control over all religious organizations and view such desires as threats to the ruling party’s authority, according to the report.
Human Rights Watch alleges that protests by the Khmer Krom over land and other grievances have drawn increasingly harsh responses, including the forcible defrocking of at least 20 monks in 2007, the violent dispersal of protests, beatings in police custody and the May 2007 jailing of five monks, who were only recently released.
In October 2008, Vietnamese Ambassador to the US Le Cong Phung wrote to Human Rights Watch, flatly denying that any ethnic Khmer protesters had ever been jailed, and that all those temporarily detained had been released unharmed.
“It is our belief that those monks were dealt with in conformity with the Buddhist Charter,” the Ambassador wrote.
Cambodian authorities have likewise sought to stifle dissent, scattering Khmer Krom protesters with tear gas and electric batons during protests in February and April 2007.
On the evening of the February demonstration, Khmer Krom protester Eang Sok Thoeun was found dead in his Kandal province pagoda with his throat cut. Police described the killing as a suicide, but rights workers claimed it was a murder.
In June that year, Cambodian authorities also defrocked, arrested and deported Tim Sakhorn, abbot of Phnom Den pagoda in Takeo province, after claiming that he had asked to be taken to Vietnam.
Tim Sakhorn was then jailed for allegedly violating Vietnam’s policy of national unity. He was released in June 2008 but has not been allowed to return to Cambodia.
Non Nget, Supreme Patriarch of the Mohanikaya Buddhist sect who ordered Tim Sakhorn’s defrocking, said Wednesday he had not reviewed the Human Rights Watch Report but said that genuine Buddhists do not engage in political protest.
“Real monks do not demonstrate. They eat and pray,” Non Nget said, accusing some Khmer Krom monks of using violence in confronting police.
“They demonstrate against whomever, and they are not real monks,” he said.
“I don’t want to discuss this as I am not a politician.”