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Khmer Krom activist jailed for political agitation

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A Khmer Krom monk and human rights defender was sentenced to one year in prison for political dissidence, following prolonged disappearance and detention in Vietnam. Cambodia and Vietnam continue to draw heavy criticism in the face of human rights violations and political repression.

(Bangkok, 14 November 2007) Prominent Khmer Krom human rights defender and former Buddhist Abbot Tim Sa Khorn was sentenced on 9 November to one year in prison by Vietnamese authorities for “undermining the solidarity between Cambodia and Vietnam”, according to a report by Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation1.

This was his first appearance in public since he was detained in Vietnam, after being defrocked and deported by Cambodian authorities in June. The circumstances of his disappearance, detention, and sentencing were shrouded in secrecy, in what seems to be Cambodia and Vietnam’s latest attempt to repress unwelcome political activism and advocacy by the Khmer Krom.

The Khmer Krom are an indigenous people living in southern Vietnam. Khmer in ethnicity and Vietnamese in nationality, the Khmer Krom are victims of long-standing persecution by both Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities.

Tim Sa Khorn is an active member of the Khmer Krom community in Cambodia and has used his position as a Buddhist abbot to advocate Khmer Krom issues. He reportedly educated his temple’s followers about Khmer Krom history, distributed human rights material to Khmer Krom in Vietnam, and provided asylum for Khmer Krom refugees at his Pagoda. As a result of this ongoing and political activism, Tim Sa Khorn was targeted by the Vietnamese government, Cambodian authorities, and even factions within the Buddhist order in Cambodia.

In the wake of forced relocation by the Vietnamese government in 1979, Tim Sa Khorn fled to Cambodia at the age of 11. He became a Cambodian citizen, joined the Buddhist monkhood, and became the Abbot at Phnom Den Pagoda until he was defrocked under obscure circumstances in June.

The evidence of a conspiracy led Tim Sa Khorn to his imprisonment in Vietnam. Reportedly, the decision to disrobe him was influenced by the Vietnamese government and was based on grounds of “misconduct [which] impaired…solidarity between the two countries”.

In a letter dated 28 September 2007 to King Sihanouk, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Tim Sa Khorn of violating a number of Buddhist rules, including violence and breaking his vow of celibacy2. Hanoi claimed that Tim Sa Khorn is a Vietnamese citizen and is therefore liable for prosecution under Vietnamese law. Regardless of this claim, the fact that the Cambodian authorities deported a Cambodian citizen for imprisonment in Vietnam demonstrates the close relationship between the two.

FORUM-ASIA received information from other sources saying that the circumstances surrounding the sentencing of Tim Sa Khorn were also suspicious. The hearing was orchestrated as swiftly as possible, lasting only an hour. There was no defense lawyer present and no opportunity for appeal. In addition to his sentence, there were unconfirmed reports that he faces 14 years probation once his prison term concludes. It is unclear whether or not he will be returned to Cambodia after his sentence.