When 200 villagers from Kratie province walked into Samakki Raingsey pagoda seeking safety and shelter early this month, they weren’t the first to do so.
The villagers, whose homes in Snuol district had been torched by authorities just days earlier, were walking a well-trodden path—a path of last resorts at the end of which this pagoda on the outskirts of Phnom Penh was built.
The Kratie farmers came to Phnom Penh to ask why the land they had been living on and cultivating was sold to a Vietnamese rubber company. They came to ask for a solution from the government and look for a place to stay.
They say they were turned away from two pagodas before finding shelter at Wat Samakki Raingsey, which has become well known as a refuge for political dissidents and marginalized people—especially members of the Khmer Krom minority, who comprise around 60 percent of the monks in residence there.
Seventeen years ago, a Khmer Krom monk named Yoeung Sin was the first person to walk the path to Wat Samakki Raingsey, when he founded the pagoda because he was struggling to find a place to live in Phnom Penh after fleeing Vietnam for Cambodia in the 1980s.
Khmer Krom are ethnic Cambodians living in what is now southern Vietnam, who often face severe repression of their language and Buddhist religion at the hands of the Vietnamese government.
“Venerable Yoeung Sin fled all kinds of suppression, interrogation, torture in Kampuchea Krom,” said Seang Sovannara, the 34-year-old chief monk at Wat Samakki Raingsey. “Not even pagodas would accept him because he was Khmer Krom.”
With no pagoda willing to give him a permanent home, Yoeung Sin started pooling money sourced from sympathizers in Cambodia and abroad, bought a chunk of land on the outskirts of the city in Stung Meanchey commune, and began to build.
“Venerable Yoeung Sin built Sammaki Raingsey pagoda with no discrimination for status or race. He built it for people with nowhere to go,” Seang Sovannara said, standing in the courtyard surrounded by unfinished construction.
“The name means unite under the shining light.”
And while many pagodas survive on donations from wealthy government officials, Wat Samakki Raingsey, according to its monks, raises money mainly from opposition sympathizers.
“That is the only way we get funding, from people overseas who love democracy like us. We get no support from the government, even though we practice the national religion,” said Seang Sovannara, who was an assistant to Yoeung Sin until the elder monk’s death in 2010.
But although the chief monk says the pagoda is not aligned with any party, it has a close relationship with the CNRP, which has participated in a number of ceremonies there in the past.
“The Khmer Krom struggle for freedom, the people from Kratie struggle for their land, and the CNRP realizes this and assists the pago pagoda,” said opposition lawmaker-elect Um Sam An, who was visiting Wat Samakki Raingsey on Monday to support the Kratie villagers.
Liv Lek, who said he was trained by the CIA between 1964 and 1972 “as a spy to get rid of communists” in Southern Vietnam, is one of those who have found a home there.
Mr. Lek, now a 74-year-old achar, or lay priest, at Wat Samakki Raingsey, said he and Yoeung Sin were ordained at neighboring pagodas in Southern Vietnam’s Soc Trang province, and worked together as covert CIA agents.
Mr. Lek said he fled Vietnam secretly in 1989 and that up until 2010, when he had a request for asylum rejected by the U.S., he heard rumors that the Vietnamese were looking for him. He never felt safe, he said, so when he was invited to move to Samakki Raingsey, he obliged.
“There was a new chief and many people were having different ideas but I was invited because the chief chief wanted Khmer Krom,” Mr. Lek said.
Mr. Lek said that the protection of the pagoda and the Khmer Krom community helps him feel safe—a cover that has been eroded somewhat by the arrival of the Kratie villagers and the media and security circus that has followed them.
“It was safe before. It’s less safe now,” he said.
But he harbors no resentment, because the Kratie villagers have walked the same path he did, and the same path his friend Yoeung Sin did all those years ago.
“[Venerable Yoeung Sin] built the pagoda to escape repression,” Mr. Lek said.
“He built it for himself. He built it for everyone.”