CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha used the Buddhist Kathin festival period on Monday to visit a pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district and tell the congregation, many of them from Kampuchea Krom, that the opposition party would rescue the nation and could take next year’s festival into the former Cambodian territory long controlled by Vietnam.
Hundreds of followers hoisting Buddhist and national flags gathered at the CNRP’s Chak Angre Loeu headquarters in Meanchey district before lining the alleyways leading to nearby Samakki Raingsey pagoda for the traditional gift-giving Kathin ceremony and to hear the opposition leaders pledge their support to the marginalized Khmer minority in southern Vietnam.
“Together, we are one solid Khmer family and we must do everything to protect this pagoda and the people of Kampuchea Krom,” Mr. Rainsy said to a crowd of up to 1,000 followers. “And next year, [when] we rescue our country, we will make Kathin in Kampuchea Krom [territory].”
In his address at the pagoda, Mr. Sokha announced that the CNRP would next month march along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border in Takeo province, near the ancient Khmer capital, Kork Thlork.
“We have a plan to march for Kathin on November 10 in Takeo province’s Angkor Borei district at Phnom Da near the border with Yuon,” Mr. Sokha said, using a term often considered derogatory to the Vietnamese.
“We will show Yuon that this is historical Khmer territory and they cannot take it,” he said.
Mr. Sokha also pledged his support to the Khmer Krom, which means “lower Khmer” and is used to denote the Khmer minority now living in what is Vietnam’s Mekong delta region.
“We are very regretful [that Khmer Kampuchea Krom live in Vietnamese territory] but we are the Khmer nation and we never abandoned the Khmer Krom,” he said. “Kampuchea Krom are Khmer people and the Yuon robbed our land.”
“Many of the monks here are Kampuchea Krom and they have returned [to Cambodia] because they have suffered…in Yuon territory.”
Kampuchea Krom was once part of the Khmer Empire but officially became Vietnamese territory as France pulled out of Indochina and officially annexed the land to Hanoi in 1949. Khmer nationalists have never given up claim to the territory, and accuse the Vietnamese government of oppressing the sizeable Khmer minority in the southern parts of Vietnam.
In its Constitution, Vietnam, a one-party communist state, allows for freedom of worship but has many restrictions on organized activities of religious groups, and only “officially recognized” Theravada Buddhism as a “religious organization” in February 2009.
A 2009 Human Rights Watch report details the plight of the Khmer Krom in Vietnam, including a 2007 peaceful demonstration for more freedom of religion, which ended with at least 20 monks being defrocked, a process that traditionally should take place within the monkhood and not at the hands of state authorities.
“Although the protest was conducted peacefully,” the report states “…the government responded harshly, arresting and dismissing at least 20 monks from the monkhood, and imprisoning five.”
Thach Ha Sam Ang, deputy chief monk at Samakki Raingsey pagoda, which is populated by more than 50 percent Khmer Krom, said he was at those protests and fled soon after to avoid the wrath of the Vietnamese government.
“I could not live there anymore because the authorities tried to control me and wanted to defrock me,” Thach Ha Sam Ang said.
“Under the Vietnamese government, Kampuchea Krom, and monks, have no right to opinion, no respect,” he continued, adding that some 2,000 monks had “escaped” Kampuchea Krom since the 2007 protests and many now engaged in politics.
“For the first time, monks in Cambodia can see that they are able to speak against Hun Sen’s government and as this news travels, I expect more [monks] to escape from Kampuchea Krom.”