Monk Vows To Continue Rallying Khmer Krom

Sipping from a coconut under the shade at Samaki Raingsei pagoda, head monk Youen Sin, 73, looks an unlikely dissident.

But his pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district has become a lightning rod for the most recent explosion of emotion about the issue of Kampuchea Krom, which has long festered between Cambodia and Vietnam.

Police recently beat a group of approximately 50 monks, mostly from his pagoda, as they tried to deliver a petition to the Vietnamese Embassy calling for the release of Khmer Krom monks jailed in Vietnam, but Youen Sin insists they will not be silenced.

“I am ready to die,” he said in an interview last week.

Youen Sin said he has received anonymous phone calls and letters threatening him since the Khmer Krom protest at the embassy. “They say I am trying to cause a split with Vietnam and that I am a monk and should stay out of politics,” he claimed.

The intimidation will not work, Youen Sin said.

“I am Khmer Krom, I must help our people,” he said.

“If I die, maybe the young people will continue my vision.”

The history of Kampuchea Krom, which once covered the Mekong delta area of today’s Vietnam, is complex and poorly documented, with Vietnamese claiming the disputed territory since the 17th century, and Khmer Krom countering that the borders were drawn unfairly by the French as they left Indochina in the 20th century.

But for Youen Sin, the issue is simple.

“We were the indigenous people before the Vietnamese came, now we have no freedom,” he said. “We do not want land back, we just want the freedom to live peacefully.”

Youen Sin referenced a catalogue of incidents to illustrate the injustices that have befallen Khmer Krom monks in both Vietnam and Cambodia that he said had made action necessary.

They include the 19 Khmer Krom monks arrested and defrocked in Soc Trang province, Vietnam, early last year for attending a Khmer Krom human rights demonstration, and the killing of a Khmer Krom monk in Kandal province last February just hours after participating in a demonstration to demand the release of the monks jailed in Vietnam.

The defrocking, extradition and imprisonment of Khmer Krom monk Tim Sakhorn, who was accused of using his pagoda in Takeo province to undermine solidarity with Vietnam, also showed the forces working against the Khmer Krom, he said.

“We demand and protest because our patience is limited,” Youen Sin said. “A flood will eventually break the dam.”

Ministry of Cults and Religion Secretary of State Sun Kim Hun said Tuesday it was not contrary to the Buddhist discipline for Khmer Krom monks to demand justice for their people in Vietnam.

“If they see injustice, it is their right to demand justice,” said Sun Kim Hun, who is a member of Funcinpec. “If the police hit them, they have the right to defend themselves.”

Though he did not give specifics, Youen Sin said he and his monks would take whatever non-violent action is necessary to draw more attention to their cause.

“All we want is peace and safety,” Youen Sin said. “We cannot tolerate the pressure they put on our race.”

But Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam denied last week that the Vietnamese government lacked respect for the rights and traditions of the Khmer Krom.

“Accusations are only accusations, and the truth is always the truth,” he said. “People who visit Vietnam can see the real situation for themselves,” he said.

Trinh Ba Cam added that he was unconcerned about any plans the Khmer Krom monks might have to lead more protests in Phnom Penh.

“Cambodia is a democratic country,” he said. “They have the right to protest.”

Samaki Raingsei may be the starting point for a larger Khmer Krom rights movement, Youen Sin said, with more than 30 Khmer Krom among the 50 monks resident there and more coming all the time to stay at the pagoda. The monks are now building a training center and pagoda building themselves.

“I cannot say I am the appointed leader [of Cambodia’s Khmer Krom movement], but it is I who has come to lead it, because I am not afraid to die,” Youen Sin said. “My life is at risk, but Buddhism teaches me life is not stable and you can always die.”

Despite the violence, the demonstration in front of the Vietnamese Embassy was successful in gaining international attention for their plight, Youen Sin said.

But he said he finds it strange that Khmer Krom monks are being treated as though they are enemies of the Cambodian government and at the mention of Cambodia’s top Buddhist Patriarch Tep Vong, Youen Sin shook his head.

“He has allowed this kind of pressure to be put on the Khmer Krom monks,” he said. “We don’t cooperate with him.”

Tep Vong said Tuesday there was no problem between him and the Khmer Krom monks.

“Regardless of whether they are Khmer Krom or Khmer monks, I will continue to maintain solidarity, whatever they have done,” he said.

“If they don’t want to work with me, I don’t know what to say.”

Youen Sin himself came to Cambodia in 1979 from Sok Trang province in Vietnam before becoming a monk in 1987.

“I came to Cambodia to escape the Vietnamese influence, but I find it has influence here too,” he said.

Other monks in Samaki Raingsei pagoda echoed Youen Sin’s views. Ly Chandara, 30, formerly Mai Ngoc Ben, said he came to Cambodia five years ago, as his freedom was being restricted in Vietnam.

“They made us change our ceremonies into ones that are contrary to Buddhism,” he said, referring to the month-long Kathin celebration, which has been reduced to a one-day observance by the Vietnamese authorities.

He also said there was provocation aimed at Khmer Krom monks’ pagodas by the Vietnamese authorities.

“If the Vietnamese keep pressuring the Khmer Krom, then our struggle will go on,” he said. “I don’t think we can win against the Vietnamese government, but we hope at least that they will be forced to try and understand us.”

Thach Xuan Hien, 23, arrived at the Samaki Raingsei Pagoda earlier this year.

He was one of the 19 Khmer Krom monks who were defrocked after he joined a demonstration to demand political rights in Vietnam.

“They accuse me of being a traitor,” he said. “I am a traitor against Vietnam because they invaded our country.”

Several people living nearby said the monks in Samaki Raingsei pagoda were well regarded in the area.

“They seem like gentle monks and they have good respect for Buddhism,” vegetable seller Sinak Nath said. On the Khmer Krom issue, Sinak Nath said she pitied the monks. “Of course they want their land back,” she said. “Anybody would.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said last week that Khmer Krom people are free to gather and the government was unconcerned about the Khmer Krom monks’ activities.

“We have no law to prevent [the] Khmer Krom from gathering,” he said, but added that monks must respect the law like everybody else.

“I hope those monks will continue to be our respected monks and not provoke problems for the country.”

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