Kiri Vong district, Takeo province – Tim Sakhorn, a defrocked Khmer Krom monk who was allegedly forcibly deported to Vietnam in mid-2007, unexpectedly found himself back in Takeo province this weekend.
Dressed in plaid shorts and a khaki button-down shirt, he spoke calmly Sunday at his father’s house in Phnom Den commune and told of how he was stripped of his monk’s robe and given a pair of pants and a blue shirt, both of which were too small for his frame. Then, four police officers placed him in a car June 30, 2007, and drove across the border, without stopping, until arriving at a Vietnamese prison in An Giang province.
“I thought I was being sent to [Takeo] provincial prison,” he said.
“My life was so difficult there,” he recalled of his nearly two-year stay in Vietnam, which he said was forced upon him. “I want especially to stay in Cambodia. I don’t want to stay in Vietnam.”
Formerly the abbot of the Phnom Den pagoda, Tim Sakhorn was defrocked by top Buddhist clergy for supposedly negatively affecting the relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. Some months after being taken to the An Giang prison he was convicted of political crimes in Vietnam and sentence to a year in prison. Since being released last year, family members have said Tim Sakhorn has been under virtual house arrest in Vietnam.
Cambodian officials have maintained that the former monk had not been deported but rather had asked to leave Cambodia for Vietnam following his defrocking.
Before now, the account of Tim Sakhorn’s absence could not be independently verified and government officials for both Cambodia and Vietnam either declined to comment Sunday or said they were unaware of his return. His apparent deportation in 2007 ignited a firestorm of complaints from rights groups and other Khmer Krom monks who said Tim Sakhorn’s expulsion was illegal and politically motivated.
To his surprise, the 41-year-old Tim Sakhorn was allowed to travel to Cambodia Saturday to visit his family, who will complete his mother’s funeral ceremony today, an observance that was cut short by his extradition.
Before he left, he said Vietnamese police forced him to write and sign a letter saying that during his stay he would not criticize the Cambodian or Vietnamese authorities. If he did, he would face jail time when he returned. He said police also kept the letter.
Once a Cambodian citizen, Tim Sakhorn now only carries a Vietnamese passport and identification card, which he showed Sunday to reporters. The stamp inside the blue booklet, which identifies him as Tim Sa Khonl, says he can legally stay in Cambodia until April 17. He has not seen his Cambodian papers since they were seized during his deportation and handed over to Vietnamese authorities, he said.
Tim Sakhorn said Sunday that at the Vietnamese prison, he lived in a room with 25 Vietnamese men and was questioned several times by officers. Five months later, the court found him guilty of undermining the “solidarity” between Vietnam and Cambodia.
After his release in July, three policemen took him on a month-long tour of Hanoi and the surrounding provinces. They showed him Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the coastline and the new development springing up around the city. He said he never knew the true purpose behind the trip but felt it was an attempt to entice him to settle down in Vietnam.
Following the voyage, he was sent to live with an aunt in An Giang province and placed under de facto house arrest.
He said leaving Vietnam was not an option. Two officers were stationed at the home and other policemen would frequently stop by, sometimes to question him, sometimes to take him out for dinner and drinks with other officers.
“They asked me if I wanted to stay here or not,” he said of the police visits. “I would tell them, ‘No.'”
For his part, Tim Sakhorn said he was never physically abused or threatened during his stay. In fact, while interrogated at the prison, police would offer him coffee and cakes, treats that were not presented to his fellow inmates.
Tacit intimidation, though, was not uncommon. For the letters promising to return to Vietnam, of which he said he wrote several, he was called into a police station and sat down. There, law enforcement officials encircled him and dictated the script. Frightened as to what might happen if he disobeyed, he followed the policemen’s orders.
“My heart did not want to write a letter like this,” he said.
National police spokesman Keat Chantharith said he did not know Tim Sakhorn had returned to Cambodia. He was aware, however, that Tim Sakhorn had been released from prison.
When asked about details of the case and claims made by Tim Sakhorn that Cambodian police drove him to Vietnam, Keat Chantharith declined to comment, saying he had not received any word from provincial police.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, could not be reached for comment Sunday, though in the past he said Tim Sakhorn had left Cambodia willingly.
Trinh Ba Cam, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy, also could not be reached Sunday, but said in August that Tim Sakhorn has “full freedom. It is his right if he wants to live in Vietnam or other place.”
On Saturday night, Tim Sakhorn and his siblings both noted Cambodian police patrolling the streets and area around his home.
Meas Sophoan, police chief for Kiri Vong district, declined to comment.
“I don’t believe you are journalists,” he said shortly before hanging up the phone. “If you want to report, go to my office.”
Soun Phon, deputy provincial police chief, said he did not know Tim Sakhorn was in Takeo or that police were reportedly watching his home. He declined to comment on the claim that Takeo provincial police shipped Tim Sakhorn to Vietnam.
“The provincial police did not receive a report from the district and they are not guarding him at the house,” he said.
Thach Setha, executive director of Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, said Tim Sakhorn was defrocked illegally by Cambodian authorities and sent to Vietnam without any evidence showing he committed any wrongdoing.
“We want to help Tim Sakhorn live in Cambodia because he is Cambodian and now they made him accept a Vietnamese passport and ID card,” he said Sunday.
“Tim Sakhorn and the other Khmer Krom, they are Cambodian,” said Ang Chanrith, head of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organization. “The Vietnamese authorities can not threaten them to become Vietnamese nationals. They are still Cambodian nationals. It is a violation of the human rights of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom by the Vietnamese.”
Ang Chanrith said the organization would meet with King Norodom Sihamoni Tuesday to plead the case of Tim Sakhorn.
Tim Sakhorn on Sunday also called upon rights groups, foreign embassies and the United Nations to intervene on his behalf and help him stay in Cambodia. But if the legality of his stay is not resolved, he said he will reluctantly depart for Vietnam.
“I have to go back. They will arrest me,” he said. “I am so sad.”