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A Monk Without a Country

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17 May 2010
By Charlie Lancaster of South East Asia Globe


Born in 1968, Tim Sakhorn is perhaps the most famous Khmer Krom activist alive today. He was granted political asylum in Sweden in July 2009.

How does it feel to be reordained? Do you wish you were re-ordained in Cambodia?

I am very happy to be a monk again because it has been my way of life, and it has been my culture. Being out of my robe and out of the temple, I feel so lost. I wanted to re-ordain in Cambodia but Freedom of Religion is limited there. In April 2009, upon my release from the Vietnam Government, I came back to Cambodia hoping to seek some justice and re-ordain myself. But I did not receive any; the Cambodian government did not even issue me an identification card. Thus, I was forced to escape from my country and seek refuge in Thailand.

If you were to return to Cambodia, would the authorities recognize you as a monk?

I don’t think Cambodia government will recognize me as a monk because they are responsible for my arrest, defrock, deportation and imprisonment in Vietnam. I feel unsafe in Cambodia because I am an activist and when you protest, you risk your life. On February 27, 2007, one of my fellow Khmer Krom monks, Ven Eang Sok Thoeun, participated in a demonstration in front of the Vietnam Embassy in Phnom Penh in response to the injustices of the imprisonments in Vietnam. The next morning was found with his throat slit in his own temple.

I am just a monk and there is no judicial system to regulate the government, so I am powerless against what the government wants to do.

You’ve had a difficult three years, what were the best/worst moments since you were deported in 2007?

My last three years of experience has been a life changing one and I know I am fortunate to still have my life. The worst part was not when I was imprisoned with 26 other men, they beating me. It was not when I was beaten, kicked, punched or starved. Not even when they injected me with unknown substances. It was when I sat in my jail cell and realized I have no sovereignty over my own life and my own belief. The Vietnam government has been silencing Khmer Krom people for centuries. And when I tried to stand up, I became one of their prisoners just like many Khmer Krom heroes. It hurt me even more when I realized I was just one of the many voiceless victims. It broke my heart to see how Cambodia Supreme Patriarch monk – Venerable Tep Vong and its government deported me; I thought the government of Cambodia would protect its people and me. But I was wrong; Vietnam and Cambodia were working together and took the human rights away from Khmer Krom people.

However, I would not hesitate to go through all the ordeals again because I feel my story would help inform the world of the struggles my people are going through each day; all in the effort to preserve our culture, language, and history. I was lucky to be able to participate in the 9th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and through the Youth Caucus my voice and concerns were heard. And to stand up as my concerns were voiced was my best moment of my life. All the struggles I went through, all the pain I have endured, all the tears I have cried were all worth it because for that very moment I knew the world would hear my people’s cry for help. I knew after that moment the world would try to persuade Vietnam to do the right thing by changing their treatment policies toward indigenous people.

What have you learned since 2007?

I’ve learned that there are certain monks like Supreme Patriarch, Venerable Tep Vong, Venerable Long Kimleang and his fellow monks, Om Lam Heng, Sao Chanthol, Noi Chruek, Cheas OM, who accused me of undermining the relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam, have abandoned their ways of non-violence. They physically forced me to defrock and threw me civilian clothes. It was my first time witnessing and experiencing monks who went against the teaching of Buddhism.

We are monks and we believe in non-violence but these monks were equivalent to barbarians. I do not think they should continue the teachings of Buddhism if they themselves can abide by them.
I have learned that the Vietnam government has no legal system and transparency to protect the victims of human rights by offering them a fair trial.

However on the lighter side, I have learned that there is hope out there for victims of crimes against humanity like myself. There are countries out there that will help. Maybe one day, Krom Krom people can freely believe in what we choose and end the oppression from the Vietnamese Government.

What was it like to be in a Vietnamese jail?

I was stripped from my position as a monk, deported from a country that I thought would protect me, and I was given an unfair trial in a country that is trying to erase my culture. When I entered that jail cell, I had no hope of every returning home alive because there had been many stories of Khmer Krom prisoners who die in prison. I was beaten, torture, intimidate, and injected with unknown substances still to today I do not know what they have injected me with. The unknown substances num my body and I notice each day I got weaker and weaker.

I was a human being, a monk who preached the teachings of Buddhism but once I was defrocked and imprisoned into the Vietnam jail system, I was not a human being anymore. The way they treated me was worst than how they would treat wild animals. I was put into solitary confinement for so long that I could not keep track.

The smell, the noise, the dirty atmosphere of the cell is still embedded in my head. I knew that I would never be the same after my experience in that Vietnamese jail cell. I still have nightmares about the place because every minute of my life spent in that cell I thought I was going to die.

What are you advocating for?

I want my Khmer Krom people to be recognised as the indigenous people of Kampuchea Krom (southern Vietnam). I want Vietnam to respect the fundamental basic human rights such as freedom of religion.

I want to see Khmer Krom children have the same opportunity as Vietnamese children. I want to see that our Khmer culture is taught in school and I want to see the Vietnam Government respect and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). I would happily give away my life so that future Khmer Krom children can have the right to learn their own culture, so that when people ask them who they are, they can proudly answer that they are Khmer Krom and not lie and answer that they are Vietnamese.

A Khmer Krom monk hits a Cambodian man, as he blocks a protest in Phnom Penh (Mak Remissa) Will you continue campaigning?

I will continue the struggle for solidarity for Khmer Krom people and seek justice for my people and myself. I am just a single man but I will gladly give away my life so that my culture will have chance to survive.

How does it feel to be a symbol of the Khmer Krom advocacy movement?

I am lucky to still have my life and continue the struggle to help my people seek justice. But there are many others who face the same problem as me but probably have lost their lives. For over a century my people have been silenced, thus the world does not know us. The world only knows Vietnam and that it is an up and coming country but they do not know the exploitations our Khmer Krom endures. Our land taken away, policy reforms made to benefit the Vietnam Government and our culture reaching a closer step to extinction.

When did you receive political asylum in Sweden?

I received a political asylum from Sweden in July 2009.

Where are you living, what are you doing on a day-to-day basis? Are you working?

I am living in Stockholm, Sweden and I attend school every day. I don’t go to work yet and I get my monetary supplement from the Swedish government. The Swedish government has been very supportive and helpful. I am forever in their debt.

You were recently re-ordained in the United States. What is your impression of the US, the people, the lifestyle, politics

My impression of the United States is that the people seem to be very free. I have never seen people protest freely such like the one I saw in New York City. I dream that one day my people can freely protest and have our issues incorporated into the laws that will dictate our lives.

My experience in the US makes Cambodia and Vietnam ways of politics seem primitive. Where we had to keep what we believe hidden, and if we express them like how I did we would risk being imprisoned. There is no open dialogue between the government and the indigenous people like at the United Nations.

Do you feel free?

How can I feel free when my people back at home are suffering? How can I feel free when I know my culture is slowly dying? When the Vietnam Government recognises Khmer Krom as indigenous people then I would feel free but as of now, I feel more of a victim. I am just a monk without a country.

Can you return to Cambodia without fear of retribution?

Cambodia does not protect Khmer Krom, Cambodia government is working with Vietnam Government and sometimes they act as one when it’s human right related issue. I return home after my release from the Vietnam, to see if Cambodia government can help me but they did nothing to help.

The government promises that if Khmer Krom immigrates to Cambodia they will receive citizenship but in reality it is very far from the truth. Khmer Krom did not receive identification cards and cannot work or vote. But because Cambodia promises to give citizenship to Khmer Krom, we cannot seek refugee status from UNHCR. Cambodia government does not help Khmer Krom and it seems they do not want to help me. I fear for my safety to return to Cambodia because I can easily lose my life.

What about your family in Cambodia, will they join you in the States or stay in Cambodia?

Yes, they will join in Sweden because they are also in danger of losing their lives.

Do you feel cheated?

To be honest, yes. The Vietnam government signed “The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” on 13 September, 2007, but they do not respect the declaration. Since the UNDRIP has not been implemented, to me it is nothing more than great set of laws written on a piece of paper. But the world congratulates Vietnam for signing the UNDRIP and yet they have not done anything to live up to their promise. The Vietnam Government continues to deny the status of the Khmer Krom as Indigenous Peoples.

What is the future of the Khmer Krom?

I do not know what the future holds for Khmer Krom but if the Government of Vietnam continues to deny the status of Khmer Krom as the rightful Indigenous people and the government continues to deny the basic human right such as, freedom or religion, Khmer Krom culture will die.

What is in your future?

My future is to be monk. I am a Buddhist monk; I want to be a teacher. I can teach Khmer Krom children about Khmer language, history, culture, and peace.

Do you have a message for the Cambodian or Vietnamese government?

I hope they will do the right thing and recognize the rights of Indigenous people and respect basic human rights.

Do you have a message for the people of either country?

I wish all Khmer Krom people will continue the struggle to seek our human rights because together we can achieve it. If we don’t do it now, we will never have a better future tomorrow. Each and every day our culture is slowly eroding and we can stop this with solidarity.

Men sit behind a portrait of anti-communist Buddhist monk Tim Sakhorn during a protest at a pagoda in Phnom Penh (Chor Sokunthea) "The worst part of the last three years was not when I was imprisoned with 26 other men in one cell. It was not when I was beaten, kicked, punched or starved. Not even when they injected me with unknown substances. It was when I sat in my jail cell and realised I have no sovereignty over my own life and my own belief.”

Tim Sakhorn is a Buddhist monk and human rights activist who advocates for the rights of southern Vietnam’s ethnic Khmer minority, popularly known as Khmer Krom. The 42-year-old monk was arrested and defrocked in Cambodia in June 2007 before being deported (illegally) and jailed for a year in Vietnam on charges of undermining national unity. At the time, Human Rights Watch said that the politically motivated prosecution of Sakhorn was a thinly veiled attempt by the Vietnamese and Cambodian government to stop peaceful dissent by the Khmer Krom minority in both countries. He reportedly had no legal representation during his trial.

“I was given an unfair trial in a country that is trying to erase my culture,” Sakhorn says adding that the Vietnamese refuse to recognise the Khmer Krom as indigenous peoples and actively persecute the minority by forcing them to adopt Vietnamese names and speak Vietnamese. They are also punished for practising their form of Thervada Buddishm and prevented from accessing education and health care. "I knew that I would never be the same again after my experience in the Vietnamese jail.”

Sakhorn was born in southern Vietnam, but fled the country with his family when border fighting broke out between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces in 1978.

Like other members of the Khmer Krom minority living in Cambodia, Sakhorn and his family were recognised by the government as Cambodian citizens. But in reality, they are treated like second-class citizens.

“Khmer Krom living in Cambodia are not given identification cards and cannot work in many sectors or vote,” he says. In 2002, he was made abbot in Takeo province by Cambodia’s supreme Buddhist patriarch, Tep Vong – the same man who defrocked him five years later.

“I’ve learned that certain monks like Venerable Tep Vong and his fellow monks have abandoned their non-violent ways. It was the first time I witnessed and experienced monks who went against the teaching of Buddhism.”

Upon his release, he returned to Cambodia but, fearing for his life, he fled to Thailand where he sought political asylum. “I felt unsafe. There is no judicial system to regulate the government.”

Sakhorn was granted asylum in Sweden and he is now living in Stockholm. Having been a monk for 17 years he says he was lost when out of his robe, but last month the Buddhist community in Massachusetts re-ordained him. After three years of suffering, he has found his voice again and is hopeful of a promising future.

“The best part of the last three years was when I spoke at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. All the struggles I have survived, all the pain I have endured, all the tears I have cried were all worth it because for that very moment I knew the world would hear my people’s cry for help. I knew that the world would try to persuade Vietnam to do the right thing by changing their treatment policies toward indigenous people.
Last Updated ( 17 May 2010 )