Youen Sin is unflappable.
When he hears that the legality of his 14-year-old, Khmer Krom-affiliated Meanchey district pagoda is being called into question, he does not bat an eye.
On Monday, the municipality released its annual report, which, for the first time, included a section on religious institutions. Of the 87 pagodas in the city, only one is unlawful: Mr Sin’s.
“In Vietnam we were threatened by Vietnamese authorities. We ran to Cambodia and now Cambodian authorities collude with Vietnam,” the head monk said.
The Samaki Raingsei pagoda in Stung Meanchey commune has been a center of political activity the government does not welcome. Most famously, in early 2008, 50 monks from the pagoda clashed with police while trying to deliver a petition to the Vietnamese embassy asking for the release of ethnic Khmers imprisoned in Vietnam.
Whether the pagoda is indeed illegal remains to be seen.
Mr Sin admits there has been a land dispute over 27 hectares surrounding the pagoda since shortly after he purchased it from villagers in 1996. The case went to court in 1997, and was appealed in 1998, but Mr Sin maintained that a written verdict in favor of the landowner, Kim Hearng, was never released and government authorities never once asked them to leave the land.
The pagoda has a title, he said, signed by the former commune police chief, commune chief, and director of the municipal department of religions, among others, but does not have a verification letter from the Ministry of Cults and Religions.
Meanwhile, municipal and ministerial officials alike seem unsure of the pagoda’s status.
“I know this pagoda is in a disputed location,” said Mao Samoeun, Stung Meanchey commune police chief, noting nevertheless that he could not say whether or not it is legal. The commune chief, Seng Sanh, and Phnom Penh deputy governor, Man Chhoeun, both declined to comment.
And Min Khin, Minister of Cult and Religions, would say only: “This happened before I was minister.”
“We know this pagoda very well. As [Mr Sin] says, it has been around for years and years,” noted Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho. “I don’t know about the paperwork…. I only can comment that, yes, monks in that pagoda have in the past been threatened.”
Tensions between the ethnic Khmers, Vietnam and Cambodia arguably reached a head last year upon the release of a Human Rights Watch report which claimed Vietnamese authorities routinely used violence on monks, Cambodian authorities created unnecessary obstacles to citizenship and both countries severely restricted the group’s freedoms.
Still, tensions have cropped up again of late, Ms Pilorge said.
“There’s a small group of members, 27, who have been trying desperately to get IDs,” noted Ms Pilorge, referring to a group of recent deportees from Thailand who insist the government is taking far too long to give them national identification cards. “The Khmer Krom have been targeted for years.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he could not comment on the municipality’s listing of pagoda but denied the government treated the Khmer Krom unfairly.
“Our Khmer Krom policy is that we have to respect each other. For the Khmer Krom issue we abide by the law. To say otherwise accuses us wrongly,” he said. “We have one law for everyone.”