March 17, 2007
INDIGENOUS PEOPLES REPORT: Rebecca Sommer: Khmer Krom in Southern Vietnam Face Oppression from Hanoi Regime
By David M. Kinchen
Editor, Huntington News Network
The Khmer Krom are an indigenous people in southern Vietnam, hanging on to their culture, language, Buddhist religion and way of life as a distinct, differentiated people, against all obstacles they endure since Vietnam became a communist country says rights advocate and documentary filmmaker Rebecca Sommer.
The New York City-based German citizen -- a frequent contributor to Huntington News Network -- says international human rights organizations have become increasingly alarmed about Vietnam's oppression of the freedom of speech and religion of the Khmer Krom. Numerous reports on severe human rights violations have been reported, but little has been done by the international community.
Since ancient times, the social and spiritual center of each Khmer Krom village is the community owned and maintained Buddhist temple. Together with the circle of village Elders, the Khmer Krom Buddhists are the religious leaders of their communities, guiding their communities in accordance to the teachings of "peace, nonviolence and harmony with all living beings."
Sommer said that Vietnam’s communist leaders in Hanoi continue to forcefully "Vietnamize" the Khmer Krom people in a way that will inevitably deprive them of their traditional land, culture, language, way of life, and their religion.
“Once a prosperous people, the Khmer Krom are by now one of the poorest of the poor, in Vietnam,” Sommer added.
"For my documentary ‘Eliminated Without Bleeding’ in 2005 various I visited Buddhist temples which were clearly invaded by ethic Vietnamese,” Sommer told HNN. “They build houses in the sacred Temple grounds against the consent of the Khmer Krom community. Schools use the Vietnamese language, and the Khmer Krom have great difficulties finding access to bilingual education. Numerous monks get arrested for teaching in their temples the Khmer Krom language to the village children."
Sommer, a representative of the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples International, added: "I investigated especially the situation of the oppression of their religion, and I can tell you, it looked pretty bad. Monks who teach in the temples to their communities historical facts on their peoples get swiftly arrested, disrobed, imprisoned, beaten, even tortured and sometimes killed.”
Sommer explained that the Buddhist religion is fully controlled by the Vietnamese authorities, and infiltrated by force and intimidation with communist doctrines. Monks who teach young monks must mix religion with communist propaganda. If they don’t, Sommer said, “they are arrested and disrobed as traitors. Everyone lives in fear, the villagers, the monks, it was extremely depressing to realize, how oppressed these people live, it was terrible. So many Khmer Krom fled Vietnam, and are in limbo as refugees, not recognized by the international community to need serious help."
On Feb. 8, 2007, about 200 Khmer Krom Buddhist Monks took part in a peaceful protest in Province Soc Trang, to publicly endorse the Khmer Krom’s plight to the Vietnamese government to be allowed to fully practice their Buddhist religion.
"I heard and saw so many examples on how the Vietnamese government is restricting everything they can,” Sommer told HNN. “Buddhist ceremonies are limited, or even banned completely; imagine if your government prohibits you from celebrating Christmas, or tells you that you can only celebrate Christmas in summer! That's how the Khmer Krom feel," said Sommer.
Reacting to the peaceful demonstration of the monks, on the first day the local Vietnamese police forces entered the Khmer Krom villages, surrounded their temples and arrested approximately 60 Buddhist Monks, while the rest of the monks escaped and went into hiding.
"We got warned, if we even get out of our houses to show solidarity, we would get arrested too," said one Khmer Krom elder who wishes to stay anonymous. " We honor our monks, they are the heart of our Khmer Krom peoples; to see them treated like criminals while they just represent our collective voice and wish to be allowed our religion, is devastating and very humiliating, not only for the monks, for all of us Khmer Krom."
The NGO Khmer Krom Federation reports that Vietnamese authorities launched operations on an unprecedented scale, aiming to identify and punish those responsible for the demonstration, hoping consequently to subdue once and for all the emerging human rights movement within the Khmer Krom community.
The four temples which where mainly involved with the protest continue to this day to be surrounded by heavily armed police and military units.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine on March 14, 2007 went to visit one of the surrounded temples in Soc Trang to intervene with the local police and military. RFA told Sommers on March 15 that the ambassador has been told by the Vietnamese authorities to not interfere with Vietnam’s internal affairs.
Six Buddhist Monks are currently in prison and were disrobed -- a common practice used by authorities to hold religious people in prison as civilians.
"We fear for their lives, we are sure they get tortured at this moment," said Sereivuth Prak, vice president of KKF.
The other monks are under house arrest and are not allowed to leave the Temple complex.
We hear that they are not even getting food or water," said Prak. "The Khmer Krom communities are under harassment and individuals, especially the families of missing monks are interviewed on a regular basis with intimidating practices in the pursuit of information about organizers and participants of the demonstration."
"The Vietnamese military and police forces want to find, detain and punish those monks which they feel are responsible for the protest," said Giap Tran, another representative of the KKF. "We get numerous reports from our frightened communities, all equally disturbing, which we reported to the United Nations."
“Vietnam has a well documented history of detaining Khmer Krom monks and village leaders for prolonged periods without charge or trial, as well as the routine and systematic use of torture,” Sommer told HNN.
Reacting to the bullying of the demonstrating monks in Vietnam, numerous other monks and Khmer Krom in Cambodia, and those living in exile in the U.S., Canada, France and Australia showed their solidarity and also demonstrated peacefully at Vietnamese embassies, Sommer said.
Sadly, one monk, Eang Sok Thoeun, who fled Vietnam and lived in Cambodia may have been murdered after returning from a demonstration of solidarity on Feb. 27, 2007 at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Phen, Cambodia the next day.
He was found dead on Feb. 28, 2007, with his throat slit, and Cambodian authorities claim that he was a drug addict and committed suicide.
"This is absurd, they do not even have money to buy food as refugees in Cambodia, imagine a Buddhist monk being on drugs, that is just an outrageous claim," said Giap Tran, from KKF.
"I fled together with Eang Sok Thoeun, and lived with him in our refugee hiding place -- for sure I would know if he used drugs, and he did not,” Giap Tran added. “He was a devoted monk, and wanted to promote human rights, nothing else, and that's why he was killed," said a Khmer Krom monk, who wishes to stay anonymous.