Seated in an upper room in Phnom Penh’s Samaki Raingsey pagoda, Venerable Serey Vothnak traces unseen shapes on a scratched wooden table with his finger, sounding out the letters of the holy Pali script with each stroke. Within this 2,000-year-old script, the language of the sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, he says, are the building blocks of the modern Khmer tongue—the language he learned from his parents when he was a boy, and that his family has spoken at home for generations.
But Serey Vothnak was not born in Cambodia, and Serey Vothnak is not the name he was given at birth. The 28-year-old Buddhist monk was born in a village on the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam with a Vietnamese name. He is a member of the Khmer Krom—“Lower Khmer”—community, a millions-strong ethnic group that maintains strong cultural and familial ties to their cousins across the border in Cambodia. For many ethnic Khmer, Cambodia’s majority ethnic group, that border runs like a wound between a people divided not by custom or culture, but by uncaring colonial powers.
“What I miss the most in Kampuchea Krom is my family,” the monk says, using the traditional—though controversial—name for the provinces of Vietnam once claimed by the Khmer Empire. “I was born in Kampuchea Krom. My parents are from Kampuchea Krom, and I became a monk there.”
“If I return back as an educated monk, they worry we will teach about history or politics.”
But like many Khmer Krom monks who leave home in southern Vietnam to live and study in Cambodia, Vothnak may never see his family again. For decades, Vietnamese authorities have restricted the ability of Khmer Krom Buddhist monks to travel abroad to pursue higher education, forcing many to make clandestine journeys across the border to Cambodia, seeking out Cambodian citizenship and the opportunity to study the Buddha’s teachings in their native language. Although these restrictions have loosened over the past decade, many of the monks who have returned to Vietnam to teach Buddhism in the Khmer language have been met with suspicion, surveillance and even arrest by local authorities fearful of any contact between Khmer Krom people and Khmer nationalist movements in Cambodia.
“The monks in Buddhism are very powerful,” Vothnak says. “If I return back as an educated monk, they worry we will teach about history or politics. If I return back after having left the monkhood, they do not worry much—but they will not let us live well. Maybe they will only let us work in factories.”
Like Vothnak, Venerable Thach Thia also left his homeland to study Buddhism overseas, spending five years at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Unlike Vothnak, though, Thia chose to return to his home in Russei Srok Village, in Vietnam’s Tra Vinh Province—although he calls the province Preah Trapeang, its Khmer name. From the moment he returned, he found himself being watched.
“It’s still the same now as it was in the past,” Thia tells New Naratif. “If Khmer Krom Buddhist monks leave the country to Cambodia or Thailand or other countries to learn, and then they come back to their homeland, the police or the authorities come to ask them about everything. They make problems for monks who come from other countries.”
In 2020, Venerable Seun Ty, an ethnic Khmer Krom monk who had been granted Cambodian citizenship after leaving Vietnam in 2003, was left stranded in Vietnam’s Soc Trang Province after Vietnamese police seized his passport while he was visiting his family. Authorities accused the monk of publishing a number of posts on Facebook that criticised the Vietnamese government’s systematic mistreatment of the ethnic minority and of violating the nation’s cybersecurity law, Ty told reporters at the time.
Much of this official suspicion stems from an enduring Khmer nationalist movement and repeated statements from senior Cambodian opposition figures calling for the retaking of the Mekong Delta—a campaign tactic aimed at sowing doubt about the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s nationalist credentials. The CPP is still headed by Khmer Rouge defectors installed by invading Vietnamese forces as they drove the ultranationalist regime from power in 1979.
Thia says he has been luckier than many of the monks who have tried to return to the homes they left behind.
“I had a chance to teach and to live peacefully in my homeland because of my abbott,” he says. “He loved monks who had [more] experience in teaching. So when the [Vietnamese] authorities in my village came to question me—came to stop me—my abbott talked to them. He told them he allowed me to do it. If I didn’t have my abbott, it would have been very difficult to live and to stay in my homeland to teach the children in my temple.”
Restricting Khmer Education
For many ethnic Khmers who grow up on the Mekong Delta in the lands around Ho Chi Minh City, the chance to study the Khmer language and Buddhist religion of their parents in any real depth remains out of reach. Born and raised into a Vietnamese-language state education system, even those who embark on strict monastic studies in an attempt to reconnect with their heritage are frequently frustrated by what they describe as a narrow curriculum that teaches them neither their own language nor the history of their people in the Mekong Delta. Many never learn how to read Khmer script, cutting them off from the wider Khmer-speaking world across the border.
Moreover, as a community that remains largely dependent on subsistence agriculture, most Khmer Krom families have little time to devote themselves to education, Thia says. By setting up a small classroom in his local temple in Russei Srok Village, he hoped to attract young Khmer Krom students during the few months a year when they weren’t attending mandatory state-run schools.
His private school eventually had more than 50 pupils, he says. “Every day, they spent about one hour to come to attend my class, to learn some Khmer language and some English.”
Despite the protection of his abbott, he adds, he still came under heavy scrutiny by the Vietnamese department of education.
“At that time, it was very difficult for me,” he says. “After I opened the school, the education department called me to show all the [materials] that I taught to my students. They didn’t allow me to run my own school for the children.”
“They don’t want the Khmer Krom people who live in Kampuchea Krom nowadays to know much about their own language, their own culture, their own traditions. …[If they did,] it would be very, very difficult to control or to lead them.”
Son Chum Chuon, the secretary-general of the Cambodia-based Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association, says access to Khmer-language education remains a major issue for the Mekong Delta’s ethnic Khmer community. He cited the example of the Khmer Buddhist Studies Institute of Southern Vietnam, which is underfunded, understaffed and located far from Khmer-majority communities. The institution’s degrees are also not recognised by Vietnam’s education system.
“In Kampuchea Krom, there is no equal recognition for official education,” Chum Chuon says. When Khmer Krom Buddhist monks study the Khmer language at a pagoda, for instance, completion of their studies is only recognised by the Khmer Buddhism Association and Khmer society generally, so they have no opportunity to advance to the university level in Cambodia or Vietnam, he says.
Thia, who is now serving as a religious worker and member of the US-based Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation advocacy group, accuses the Vietnam government of denying the ethnic minority access to their history.
“They don’t want the Khmer Krom people who live in Kampuchea Krom nowadays to know much about their own language, their own culture, their own traditions,” he says. “If they knew clearly about their own culture and language like that, it would be very, very difficult to control or to lead them.”
For some monks, the struggle to pass their community’s language on to the next generation has brought harsh consequences.
In 2013, Vietnamese authorities demanded that Tra Set temple abbott Venerable Lieu Ny defrock Venerable Thach Thoul, who had been campaigning to teach the Khmer language in his temple and speaking publicly about rights violations against Khmer Krom people. Ny refused to defrock Thoul. The two men were trying to flee across the border to Cambodia when they were caught by police. They were sentenced to four to six years for “fleeing abroad to act against the people’s administration” under Vietnam’s penal code.
A History Removed
For many Cambodians, the lands of the Mekong Delta loom large in the national imagination as inalienably Khmer soil, unlawfully ceded to Vietnam by the colonial French authorities in 1949 in the lead-up to Cambodia’s independence. In this narrative, these provinces’ loss marks the lowest point in centuries of humiliation at the hands of the neighbouring Thai and Vietnamese powers that divided the borderlands of the collapsing Khmer Empire between them—that is, until the French established its so-called protectorate in the mid-19th century, eventually folding the now-subdued territory into the extractive colonial project of French Indochina.
The resentment of the loss of these fertile lands reached a crescendo under Pol Pot’s virulently anti-Vietnamese Democratic Kampuchea, when the ultranationalist leader launched waves of bloody raids across the border in an apparent attempt to retake what he considered Cambodia’s lost lands—a decision that would lead directly to the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 and the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“The government fears that when Khmer Krom people and monks learn about that background and their history, when they practise their culture and religion, then they will stand up to reclaim their rights as the indigenous people.”
But Khmer students in Kampuchea Krom do not routinely learn this history. “There was nothing we had to learn about Kampuchea Krom’s history. We only had to learn about ancient history and the French era and the history of northern and southern Vietnam. I didn’t know anything,” says Vothnak, the monk at Samaki Raingsey pagoda.
Chum Chuon, who was born in Cambodia but took refuge with relatives in Kampuchea Krom during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, says the lack of in-depth teaching of Khmer language, history and culture in the Mekong Delta reflected not neglect, but suppression by Vietnamese authorities.
“The government fears that when Khmer Krom people and monks learn about that background and their history, when they practise their culture and religion, then they will stand up to reclaim their rights as the indigenous people,” he says.
Until around 2010, Khmer Krom monks applying for a passport or visa to Cambodia had their requests either indefinitely unanswered or outright denied by Vietnamese authorities, according to researcher and anthropologist Philip Taylor. “Monks who applied were told that it was impossible to travel to Cambodia; their lives would be endangered, for Cambodia lacked laws and security. Monks who went to Cambodia to study would be breaking the law,” Taylor writes.
Even now, Chum Chuon says, when restrictions are looser, many monks—some travelling without passports or visas—are stopped at the border and sent back to their hometowns in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Cambodian government has been sending the opposite message.
“In Cambodia, the government has always said that the Khmer Krom people are Cambodian when they come to live in Cambodia—and that when they cross the border, they have no need of a visa. But that is just a statement from the government,” Chum Chuon says.
In the absence of real support from the Cambodian government, he adds, many Khmer Krom making the journey have little choice but to cross in secret.
“When they come across the border, sometimes some border police both in Vietnam and Cambodia arrest them,” he says. “In some cases, they confiscate any relevant documents such as identification cards and passports, and they send them back to Vietnam.”
Venerable Chau Ren, head of the Union of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Buddhist Monk Association, says many of those migrating are simply seeking opportunities they cannot find in their hometowns in Vietnam.
“The reason why Khmer Krom monks left Kampuchea Krom was to seek more knowledge,” he says. “Because there were very few monks who graduated from high school, and there were few schools open for monks to pursue a master’s degree.”
Once they reach Phnom Penh, though, many monks find themselves caught between local nationalist movements, which frequently look to monks as the standard-bearers in the struggle for civil rights, and state authorities on both sides of the border that see Khmer Krom-led pagodas such as Samaki Raingsey as potential hot-beds of secessionist spirit.
“When they join us, they are under watch from the local authorities—I mean they follow them, they record them sometimes, and take photos,” Chum Chuon says. “So they go across the border to Thailand to ask for refugee status, and some go to European countries to seek refugee status—many, many monks.”
For Vothnak, the Khmer Krom monk at Samaki Raingsey, the role of the monkhood in Khmer society is clearly defined: follow the Buddha’s teachings, and pass them on to the next generation.
“In Kampuchea Krom, pagodas are still the centres of education and culture,” he says. “The pagoda without the monks is empty.”
Additional reporting by Nicseybon Samouen