Khmer Krom hero rises from the delta
By Craig Guthrie
BANGKOK - As he secretly slipped away from his mother's funeral, donned his
familiar saffron robes and fled by motorbike along a potholed road from
southeast Cambodia into neighboring Thailand, Tim Sakhorn's status as a Khmer
Krom hero was assured. On Thursday, as his ethnic group marked the 60th
anniversary of the loss of its lands, the little-known movement for
self-determination and improved human rights was desperately in need of one.
The ongoing saga of Sakhorn, a 41-year-old Buddhist monk who in 2007 was
defrocked, deported and detained by Vietnamese authorities for alleged
separatist activities, has brought the cause of the Khmer Krom - a
million-strong community of ethnic Khmer who live in parts of Vietnam's Mekong
Delta that was once part of
an ancient Cambodian empire - some much-needed global attention.
Khmer Krom leaders say the Vietnamese government has suppressed their religious
and cultural identity for decades. They say the government of Cambodia, their
motherland, has disowned them for political reasons. Sakhorn's story, they
believe, is indicative of both.
Soft spoken and diminutive, Sakhorn is an unlikely successor to Son Kuy, the
swashbuckling Khmer Krom soldier who led guerilla warfare against imperial
Vietnam in the early 19th century before being beheaded at the royal court at
Hue. Sakhorn says he is no hero. He told Asia Times Online at a hidden location
in Bangkok on May 25 that he is merely happy his story can show the world that
"the oppression is real".
The pictures of both men adorned banners as Khmer Krom marched in the streets
of Phnom Penh on Thursday to commemorate colonial France's June 4, 1949, ceding
of what was then known as western Cochinchina to Vietnam. The demonstration was
kept low key - an earlier incarnation of the ruling Cambodian People's Party
(CPP) was put in place by Hanoi in 1979, and its party leaders remain sensitive
to any events critical of its important ally.
"Venerable Tim Sakhorn, is, by definition and through the examples of other
great heroes in history, a true Cambodian hero," Washington-based economist and
historian Naranhkiri Tith said by e-mail. He said Sakhorn deserves appreciation
for "trying to defend Cambodia and her people against an unrelenting
'Vietnamization' of Cambodia".
Alien in your homeland
Khmer Krom leaders say the Vietnamese government targets their ethnic group in
three ways: education, culture and economy. "Specifically, the Vietnamese
government limits the teaching of the Khmer language, restricts the practice of
Theravada Buddhism, and deprives the Khmer Krom of their lands," said Thach N
Thach, the president of the Khmer Krom Federation.
The majority of Vietnam's Buddhists practice Mahayana Buddhism as opposed to
the Khmer Krom's Theravada Buddhism. Hanoi's Minister of Culture and
Information said in 2007 that Theravada enforces "backward" customs and habits
that limit the group's development. The communist nation has restrictions on
religious practices and all Theravada wats (temples) are overseen by the
government-controlled Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.
Perpetuating their life on the margins of Vietnamese society, large number of
ethnic-Khmer students drop out of school at an early age. Many Khmer families
are too poor to take their children out of wage labor. If they can, their
children are only taught in Vietnamese. Khmer classes remain only available in
small wats that girls, by custom, cannot attend.
"When I started first grade in public school I had to learn everything in
Vietnamese, but I couldn't speak Vietnamese at all. The Vietnamese students,
even teachers, made fun of us [Khmer Krom] and made us feel that we were not
welcome," said Serey Chau, president of the Khmer Krom Federation's Youth
In March 2008, the state-run VietnamNet news site reported that Khmer students
were "dropping like flies" out of school. "Most of the students with bad
learning capacity are of Khmer minority; they cannot speak Vietnamese well and
cannot follow the study curriculum," a local teacher told them. The report said
56% of drop-outs are from the Khmer minority, with 30% of this figure leaving
due to their "inability to learn".
Vietnam insists it has introduced wide-reaching housing, poverty reduction and
education programs in an attempt to bring the Khmer Krom into mainstream
society and join in the nation's economic progress. It claims some 358,000 new
jobs were created for Khmer Krom in 2007, and that the average gross domestic
product per capita in the region is 14.8 million dong (US$890).
'Eliminate without bleeding'
Khmer Krom leaders insist that poverty is rife in the area despite the delta
being Vietnam's most fertile rice-growing region - Vietnam is the world's
second-largest rice exporter. They claim the farmlands of ethnic-Khmer families
have been confiscated by the authorities.
The World Bank found in a 2006-2010 socio-economic study that less than half of
the Khmer households it surveyed (46%) had enough food to eat all year round,
while poverty rates in Khmer Krom villages in 2005 reached between 50-70%. Of
the main causes of poverty, 100% of village households surveyed said it was
partly due to landlessness.
Thach says that after 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came into power in Phnom Penh,
all Khmer Krom lands in the Delta were placed under state ownership. The
government implemented collective land reform policies "with their eyes on the
farmlands of Khmer Krom people", said Thach. "So far, this land-grabbing has
succeeded and the majority of Khmer Krom are landless." He calls the aim of the
program "to eliminate without bleeding".
An Oxfam Australia study in late 2008 found that the loss of culture is a
primary cause of the poverty of the Khmer Krom in the Mekong Delta, "as
cultural upheaval creates a sense of deep hopelessness and despondency".
This despondency has led to Khmer Krom activism. The case of Sakhorn suggests
that the Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities are willing to collude to silence
A report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in February listed memos
from Vietnamese government officials outlining their strategies to monitor and
infiltrate ethnic-Khmer activist groups. In one, dated July 2007, General Luu
Phuoc Luong, deputy commander of Vietnam's southwest region, accused
"reactionary groups of the [Khmer] Krom" of "destabilizing us [Vietnam]
politically ... Close cooperation with the Cambodian government is needed in
order to nip these anti-government activities in the bud."
Hanoi dismissed the HRW report and Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dzung
described it as a "total fabrication" in the state-controlled Viet Nam News
Agency. "There is completely no repression or restrictions of freedom to
religion and speech for Khmer ethnic people in the Mekong Delta region," Dung
When reports of Sakhorn's defrocking first made headlines in July 2007, the
first statement from local authorities said he had been found guilty of
"improper behavior" with a woman. Later, a witness from local human-rights
group Adhoc said he had been bundled into a Toyota by unidentified men from
Prime Minister Hun Sen's elite Brigade 70 bodyguard unit. Local newspapers then
reported that he had been charged with "entering Vietnam illegally".
His whereabouts were unknown for weeks. Only in August 2007 was it confirmed he
had been quietly shuttled to Vietnam by car to face charges of "undermining
relations" between Vietnam and Cambodia by organizing Khmer Krom demonstrations
and distributing propaganda leaflets while abbot of Phnom Den pagoda in
Cambodia's southwestern Takeo province.
The defrocking order was signed by Great Supreme Patriach Tep Vong, Cambodia's
highest religious figure. Vong has strong links to the ruling government and
once served as deputy president of Cambodia's National Assembly when it was
controlled by an earlier version of the CPP.
Human-rights groups said this was proof the structure of Buddhism in Cambodia
was aligned so that religion was "politically entwined" with the government.
"It is clear that the Ministry of Cults and Religions has an unhealthy degree
of control over the Great Supreme Patriarch, and the structure of the Buddhism
in Cambodia in general," said the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
The outcry over his disappearance led Hun Sen to write to King Norodom Sihamoni
justifying his defrocking - Cambodia's royal family has traditionally displayed
more sympathy for the Khmer Krom than the government. Princess Norodom
Arunrasmy presided over Thursday's ceremony. "Monk Tim Sakhorn was stubborn,"
he wrote in the leaked letter, adding that while the government knew Vietnam
had detained him, "the exact cause of the imprisonment, we do not know yet".
Underweight and shackled, Tim Sakhorn finally surfaced at a People's Tribunal
in Vietnam's southeastern An Giang province in November, 2007. He was initially
sentenced to 15 years, but after a signing a confession - which he says was
already written and translated into Khmer - this was reduced to just one.
After his detention ended, he says he was still kept under surveillance by
Vietnamese agents, but he was allowed a brief visit to Takeo in April to visit
100-day funeral rights for his mother. Grasping the opportunity, he fled to
Thailand on a motodop (motorbike taxi). He donned his saffron robes and
was secretly re-ordained en route - enabling him to escape the attention of
Sakhorn is staying in a safe house in Bangkok where he met with Asia Times
Online. He said he is currently awaiting a United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees decision on his status and hopes to go to the United States. "But even
in a third country I will be afraid, Vietnamese agents have shadowed me and
threatened me since I was released. It doesn't matter where I go, they can find
you," said Sakhorn.
The Cambodian government has said it is safe for him to return and live there,
but he does not believe them. "I had lived in Cambodia for years, from 1978
[until 2007], and Vietnamese authorities were still able to come and take me to
their prison where I was mistreated, forced to confess and earth and grass
mixed in with my daily rice. [Prime Minister] Hun Sen says he wants to help the
Khmer Krom, but I have not seen anything happen."
For historian Tith, the Cambodian premier has no option but to support any
demands from the Vietnam. "If the Vietnamese tell Hun Sen to turn right, he
will turn right. If the Vietnamese tell him to turn left, he will turn left.
Hun Sen is very scared of Vietnam because he was propped up by Vietnam."
Written out of history
Sakhorn's arrest and deportation sparked a wave of Khmer Krom demonstrations in
Cambodia, with clashes in Phnom Penh between Khmer Krom monks and monks loyal
to Tep Vong. Hun Sen warned after the street fights in a speech broadcast on
national television in February 2008 that he would provide "free coffins" to
anyone who attempted to reclaim Khmer Krom lands and "help bury their corpses".
The Khmer Krom maintain their cause is about human rights, not independence or
the return of their lands to Cambodia. They claim to only want some say in
their future, and for Vietnam to stop falsifying their history. In 2007, the
Vietnamese Communist Party disseminated a freshly written history of southern
Vietnam that asserted that the Khmer were not its indigenous inhabitants.
Shawn McHale, an Asia studies professor at George Washington University, says
the fundamental problem in the historical dispute over the Khmer Krom's lands
is using modern notions of sovereignty for pre-colonial situations that were
ambiguous. He said a Khmer prince ceded Khmer Krom to Vietnam in 1757, but that
not all branches of the royal families agreed.
In 1864, France made Cochinchina a colony, but Cambodia was merely a
protectorate. When Hanoi and Phnom Penh both claimed the area in 1945, the
French ultimately sided with the Vietnamese in 1949.
"So the Khmer Krom today are an ethnic minority greatly outnumbered in their
land, they insist that their territory was seized by an enemy, and that this
enemy does not have a legitimate claim to the area, but most of the world
simply can't believe that such an account is true," McHale told Asia Times
Online by e-mail. "Over time, the world has come to recognize the claims of the
party that came later and used brute force to establish its claim."
Craig Guthrie is a correspondent for Asia Times Online based in Thailand.
He has covered Cambodian affairs since 2004.