Nov 09, 2007

Disrobed, Deported, Detained: The Story of a Khmer Krom Monk

Khmer Krom Buddhist Abbot Tim Sa Khorn was tried in Vietnam on 08 November 2007 in a one-hour trial. He was sentenced to one year of imprisonment on charges of aiding political activists, marking the latest in a series of moves against Khmer Krom human rights defenders and theravada Buddhist monks.

Disrobed, deported, detained. Khmer Krom Buddhist Abbot Tim Sa Khorn has had his name displayed on thousands of placards all over the world since his arrest and disappearance four months ago. A prominent Khmer Krom religious figure and human rights defender, Tim Sa Khorn had fled Kampuchea-Krom in 1979 to acquire Cambodian citizenship and settle in the southern city of Phnom Den. Disrobed in obscure circumstances on 30 June 2007 by Cambodian religious authorities, he has since then only been seen one time, on 08 November 2007, in Vietnam for a one-hour trial. As a result of the trial, he was sentenced to one year of imprisonment on charges of aiding political activists. This high-profile case is the latest in a series of moves against Khmer Krom human rights defenders and theravada Buddhist monks in Vietnam.

The forgotten struggle of the Khmer Krom

The Khmers from Kampuchea-Krom, also known as Khmer Krom, are an indigenous people living in southern Vietnam, concentrated in the Mekong River delta. According to scholars, they settled there some 3000 years ago. While they are a majority in Cambodia, Khmers have become a minority in Kampuchea-Krom.

An estimated 8 million Khmers currently live in Kampuchea-Krom, mainly in rural areas. With Vietnamese being Vietnam’s sole official language, the transmission of Khmer language and culture is therefore endangered.

In 1949, France ceded Kampuchea-Krom (then its colony named French Cochinchina) to the newly founded Vietnamese state, despite Cambodian claims to the territory.

A region affected both by the Indochina war, the Vietnam war and the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, Kampuchea-Krom is now developing again around the urban hubs of Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as the Khmer city of Prey Nokor).

The Khmer Krom are, however, still treated as second class citizens. Because of their ethnicity they are often seen by Vietnamese authorities as a threat to national integrity. Most Khmer Krom practice Theravada Buddhism, unlike other Vietnamese who consist mainly of Mahayana Buddhists and Roman Catholics. Their religious practice is strictly monitored and often infringed upon. Despite international pressure, a growing number of Khmer Krom monks and human rights defenders are being detained in Vietnam for criticising the regime and trying to raise international awareness of the situation.

The Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Foundation (KKF) is an international organisation dedicated to the defense of the fundamental rights and the cultural legacy of the Khmer Krom. The Federation has been a Member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) since 2001.

The Tim Sa Khorn Case, Bringing Down a Leading Khmer Krom Figure

Tim Sa Khorn was appointed as Abbot of the Buddhist temple in the North of Phnom-Denh (Cambodia) in May 2002. He had left his hometown in South Vietnam (Swaiton district, Mothchrouk, a.k.a. “An Giang” province) in 1979. His departure was a result of the forced displacement of Khmer Kroms by the Vietnamese government.

In his capacity as Abbot he provided religious services to Cambodians and gave shelter to Khmer Krom refugees coming from Vietnam, whom he allowed to stay in the temple until they found a place to live in Cambodia. As the North Phnom-Denh temple is located close to the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, many asylum seekers came to Tim Sa Khorn after crossing the border on their journey to Phnom Penh.

Tim Sa Khorn was not involved in political activities but openly supported the work of the KKF and other human rights organisations working to promote religious freedom in Vietnam. He reportedly educated his temple’s followers about Khmer Krom history and occasionally sent human rights material (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to fellow Khmer Krom monks in Vietnam to educate them about their fundamental rights.

According to reports of Radio Free Asia, Xin Xong Xin, the deputy chairman of the Vietnamese ethnic minority committee had met with Cambodian patriarchs Nun Nget (Buddhist Clergy Director) and Tep Vong on 05 June 2007. Shortly after, a letter in Vietnamese announcing the impending disrobement of Tim Sa Khorn was distributed to all pagodas in South Vietnam.

Later that month, on 16 June 2007, in a letter written to Tep Vong, Nun Nget sought the approval of the head monk to disrobe Tim Sa Khorn on grounds of “misconduct [which] impaired national and international solidarity, especially the solidarity between the two countries, Cambodia and Vietnam”.

On 30 June 2007, Tim Sa Khorn was summoned to meet the Head Monk of the Takeo province. Upon his arrival he was told that he would be disrobed pursuant to instructions contained in a letter written by Tep Vong, head of Buddhist monks in Cambodia. According to Radio Free Asia, witnesses saw Tim Sa Khorn escorted to a car by military men in uniform. His relatives and friends – including his father and brother – have since then not been able to get in touch with him.

Following the announcement of his disrobement, Tep Vong justified his decision by explaining on television that Tim Sa Khorn had been found in the company of a woman, thus breaching his obligation of celibacy as a Buddhist monk. A justification which was quite different from the political concerns evoked earlier by Tep Vong in relation to Tim Sa Khorn.

On 03 July 2007, General Khieu Sopheak, Spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Interior, announced that Tim Sa Khorn had gone to Vietnam (as reported in Cambodia Daily). General Khieu Sopheak added that Tim Sa Khorn freely asked to return to his home town of Swaiton in Vietnam.

Relatives of Tim Sa Khorn travelled to Swaiton looking for him, but he was nowhere to be found. According to the KKF, a witness saw Tim Sa Khorn in a police station in Can Tho city [Tim Sa Khorn’s hometown is Swaiton, located in the An Giang district. Can Tho city is located in the Can Tho district] on 10 July 2007. His whereabouts remain unknown. It is not clear whether he had been detained in Cambodia prior to his deportation or whether he was deported immediately. Although Cambodian and Vietnamese high-ranking officials provided lengthy comments on Tim Sa Khorn’s disrobement, no details were given by neither state on his whereabouts.

On 02 August 2007, Vietnam admitted to detaining Tim Sa Khorn but refused to let his relatives contact or visit him.

Three months later, on 08 November 2007, with little prior warning, Tim Sa Khorn stood trial in Vietnam. Lasting only one hour, the hearing did not allocate any time for Tim Sa Khorn to defend himself, let alone have a lawyer speak on his behalf. The right to appeal the judgement has apparently also been refused.

This case, with its vague charges, secretive movements and trials, and apparent disregard for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees, amongst other things, the right to defence and the right to appeal, demonstrates that Vietnam by no means lives up to the progressive, human rights defending image it has attempted to create.

“The case of the Venerable Tim Sa Khorn is unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg”, sighs Vien Thach, vice-president of the Khmer Kampuchea-Krom federation. Mr. Thach has been tirelessly mobilising the Khmer Krom community in Europe in the hopes to encourage European governments to intervene. Despite apparent interest, most have been reluctant to bring the case to the attention of the Vietnamese authorities, a major trade partner in the region.

UNPO urges European governments to pressure Vietnam into operating its judicial system with greater transparency, and to encourage Vietnam to uphold the international treaties it has ratified that guarantee the basic human rights of its citizens and any person appearing before its courts.