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 Council.

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 it.

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 said.

Spirited away

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 border police.

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."

By Craig Guthrie - Asia Times - June 6, 2009