Tim Sakhorn, a defrocked Khmer Krom monk who claims Cambodia police deported him to a prison in Vietnam in 2007, can remain in Cambodia if he so chooses, an Interior Ministry official said Monday.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said Tim Sakhorn can stay in Cambodia and does not need to apply for citizenship, either, since he is a member of the Khmer Krom, the ethnic Khmer minority in Vietnam.
“When they are living in Cambodia they don’t need to apply for Cambodian citizenship,” Khieu Sopheak said of the Khmer Krom.
Kuy Kuong, spokesman for the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry, said he would have to re-familiarize himself with the country’s nationality and immigration law before commenting on the case.
Defrocked and arrested in Takeo province on June 30, 2007, Tim Sakhorn disappeared only to resurface several days later in a Vietnamese prison. Officials at the time said he had undermined solidarity between the two countries and had asked to leave for Vietnam, an assertion that Tim Sakhorn denied Sunday.
Khieu Sopheak said by telephone that Interior Minister Sar Kheng was unaware of Tim Sakhorn’s deportation at the time. Khieu Sopheak also said he did not know why Tim Sakhorn was sent to Vietnam, but added that Tim Sakhorn signed a letter with his thumbprint agreeing of his own volition to leave the country and return to Vietnam.
“He signed a statement and agreed to Vietnam,” he said. “We have the document that Tim Sakhorn wanted to go to Vietnam by himself.”
Trinh Ba Cam, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy, was out of the country Monday, and a man answering the phone at the embassy’s office said Trinh Ba Cam was the only staff member allowed to speak to the media.
Currently in Cambodia for two weeks to visit his family, Tim Sakhorn said he was forcibly defrocked and taken by Cambodian police through the Vietnamese border to a prison in An Giang province. He did not recall signing or marking any letter.
Although born in Vietnam, Tim Sakhorn had lived in Cambodia since 1979 and was a monk at Takeo’s Wat Phnom Den for 17 years. In 2002, the country’s top Buddhist patriarch Tep Vong promoted him to abbot of the pagoda, a position that can be held only by Cambodians.
“When I arrived in Cambodia and I saw my father, I cried,” he said of his return Saturday. “I’d be happy, beyond happy” if allowed to reside in Cambodia, he added.
Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong said Monday that he was given a letter detailing Tim Sakhorn’s alleged political transgressions and had signed off on the defrocking. He admitted that he did not personally see any evidence of Tim Sakhorn’s wrongdoing. When asked who sent him the letter, Tep Vong paused for a moment and then hung up the phone.
On Monday, several human rights groups said they were looking into the matter but did not yet have the time to assess Tim Sakhorn’s situation or what the next move should be.
“At this point I have no comment,” said Christophe Peschoux, director of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia. Peschoux said his office would likely be contacting Tim Sakhorn to see if he would be willing to meet with them to learn more about his current situation.
Prak Sarann, Adhoc coordinator for Takeo province, said he was aware Tim Sakhorn had returned to Cambodia, and that he should be allowed to stay in Cambodia if he so wishes.
“I think that he is a Khmer citizen. His parents are Khmer and he has the same rights like the other Khmers,” he said Monday.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)