The Shadow on the Saffron Robe: Unveiling the Hidden Narratives of Khmer Buddhism in Vietnam

Government policies continue to hinder the growth of Khmer Buddhism in Vietnam.

The Shadow on the Saffron Robe: Unveiling the Hidden Narratives of Khmer Buddhism in Vietnam

Thien Truong wrote this article in Vietnamese, which was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on November 20, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated the article into English.

Sitting in a small room at a temple in Cambodia, a Khmer Krom Buddhist monk was writing in the distinctive script of Theravada Buddhism. While completing his task, the monk was startled by a call from outside. Upon opening the door, he immediately recognized the abbot of Takeo Province.

Surprised, he quickly welcomed his guest, and the two had a short meeting. Before leaving, the abbot invited him to visit his home, and of course, the monk agreed.

The Khmer Krom monk entered the abbot’s house on June 30, 2007, but as soon as he stepped inside the door, several other monks seized him, forcibly removed his robe, and pulled him into a vehicle headed for Vietnam.

The monk was promptly jailed upon entering the country. In prison, he endured beatings, torture, and was injected with unknown substances. After about a year, he was released but remained under government surveillance and house arrest.

Not long after, he crossed the border into Cambodia and secretly moved to Thailand. He was fortunate to be recognized as a political refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Swedish government also accepted his request for resettlement, and he has lived in Sweden ever since. 

This is the story of Bhadanta Tim Sakhorn, a follower of Khmer Krom Buddhism, also known in Vietnam as Theravada or Khmer Buddhism.

Many other Khmer Buddhist monks and followers have fled the country and sought refuge in other nations. Each had different reasons, perspectives, and justifications for leaving their homeland. However, their stories are tied together by shared experiences of oppression and suffering at the hands of Vietnamese authorities; Khmer Buddhism and its adherents face several challenges that severely hinder the practice of their faith in Vietnam.

Limiting Education and Knowledge About History

The Khmer people in Vietnam, primarily residing in the Mekong Delta region, represent a significant ethnic minority with deep historical roots. Their culture and identity were distinctly influenced by the Khmer Empire and neighboring Cambodia.

According to a 2017 report by the state-run Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS), Khmer Buddhism in Vietnam is comprised of 454 temples with nearly 8,574 monks and approximately 1 million followers, mainly concentrated in the provinces of Tra Vinh, Kien Giang, and Soc Trang. [1]

In the Khmer tradition, parents typically bring their sons to the temple at 13 for education and spiritual cultivation. They believe practicing Buddhism is a way to show filial piety, understand Buddhist teachings, and, most importantly, cultivate good character. [2]

Nowadays, many Khmer individuals only loosely adhere to this tradition. Many adults cannot overcome the life of monkhood in the pagodas, leading to a sharp decrease in the number of monks. In some localities, temples may only have one very young monk (around 30) to manage their religious venue. [3]

One of the leading causes of this situation is the restrictive policies imposed by the Vietnamese government. Unlike other Buddhist organizations in Vietnam, the authorities there have limited the ability of Khmer Krom Buddhist monks to study abroad to pursue higher education, forcing many to undertake secret journeys across the border into Cambodia. These monks seek Cambodian citizenship and the opportunity to learn Buddhist doctrine in their native language. [4]

This situation started in 1975 when the Communist government took control of South Vietnam and began to restrict the influence of Khmer pagodas and monasteries in the lives of the Khmer people.

Specifically, Khmer monks were forced to perform manual labor and even the collection of alms and donations was prohibited. Furthermore, the government terminated educational programs within temples by confiscating books, banning classes, and imprisoning monks who continued teaching. [5]

In the mid-1980s, the Communist government arrested teachers, abbots, and prominent figures of the resistance movement that opposed the repression of religious education; many of these people mysteriously died in prison. Likewise, monasteries and temples were raided while teaching activities were forcefully halted in certain areas. [6]

Although the government has relaxed its restrictions in recent times, Khmer Krom monks returning to Vietnam to teach Buddhism in the Khmer language have faced suspicion, monitoring, and even arrest by local authorities. The reason is that the Vietnamese government fears that these returning monks may have connections to Khmer nationalists in Cambodia. [7]
A manuscript of Buddhist scriptures in Khmer was written by Khmer Krom people on alipot palm leaves. Photo: Bao An Giang Online.

Additionally, Khmer Krom Buddhist followers raised in the Mekong Delta region have limited opportunities to understand their native tongue and their parents' Buddhist teachings. Many have no access to an education in Khmer script, worsening their separation from the broader Khmer-speaking world across the border. [8]

In some areas, Vietnamese authorities allow monks to teach within temples, but they closely monitor these classes and their content. Another problem is that the Vietnamese education system does not recognize educational degrees attained by Khmer followers.

Therefore, when Khmer Krom Buddhist monks study the Khmer language at their pagodas, their educational achievements are only recognized by the Khmer Buddhist associations and Khmer society. Naturally, they cannot pursue higher education in Cambodia or Vietnam. [9]

It was only in 2006 that the government allowed the establishment of the Khmer Theravada Buddhist Academy in Can Tho City. However, this institution is government-managed, and the curriculum is under government control.

Throughout history, Khmer Buddhist followers in Vietnam have valued the need to learn the Khmer language, putting them in opposition to the Vietnamese government in various ways.

A key event occurred in 2007 when over 200 Khmer Buddhist followers in Soc Trang Province protested against the government, calling for religious freedom and more education in the Khmer language. [10]

In 2019, the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation in Cambodia submitted a report to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, alleging that the Vietnamese government controlled what was taught in Khmer Buddhist temples. [11]

The report emphasized that teaching the Khmer language only two to three hours a week, as restricted by the government, did not help them become fluent in their mother tongue. Today, many young Khmer Krom individuals cannot read and write in Khmer. When opening language classes in their temples, Khmer Krom Buddhist monks face constant harassment from the Vietnamese government.

In one situation, a Khmer monk was defrocked, arrested, and sentenced to six years in prison in 2013 for teaching the Khmer language for free in his temple.

The Khmer people are also prevented from learning about their history and origins. One significant reason is the government's fear that Khmer monks who explore their historical foundations will demand “indigenous rights.” [12]

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam does not acknowledge the rights of indigenous people. [13]

Disappointed with the government's restrictions on understanding their language, culture, and history, many Khmer monks have had to cross the border into Cambodia to pursue unrestricted education and learn about their origins, despite the risks they may face upon returning to Vietnam. [14]

The government fears that these monks will deepen ethnic divisions, and part of the reason for this dates back to the French colonial period, which ran from the late 1800s until 1954.

During the colonial period, a line of Khmer kings in Cambodia requested that the French return the Cochinchine territory to the Khmer royal family. However, the French refused, citing that the Nguyen Dynasty had ceded this land twice to France in 1862 and later in 1874, not the Khmer kings. Furthermore, the French signed a protectorate treaty with the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1863, but the Khmer royalty did not mention this southern territory. [15]

Nevertheless, Khmer Krom organizations cite Law No. 49-733 of France, issued on June 4, 1949, which amended the status of the Cochichine region within the French Union. Under this law, this territory was a part of the Union of Vietnam and not an overseas territory of France. [16] For this reason, the Khmer people believe that this land is essentially theirs.

Marking this event every year on June 4, the Khmer community takes to the streets in protest, demanding that Vietnam return the land, but failed to mention to which country. This sentiment has been deeply ingrained in the minds of the Khmer people to this day.

It is worth mentioning that the loss of this land has turned into a grievance among the Khmer people in Cambodia. A climax occurred during the Democratic Kampuchea era (1975-1979), led by the infamous Pol Pot, who governed the country with extreme nationalism. Pol Pot launched a bloody cross-border attack in an attempt to reclaim the land he believed Cambodia lost to Vietnam. [17] Only when Vietnam retaliated and sent troops into Cambodian territory, leading to the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, this war came to an end.

Although there have been no more bloody massacres since that time, the resentment among the Khmer people about the southern land of Vietnam has persisted.

Frequent Mistreatment, Oppression, and Discrimination

In June 2005, a group of Khmer Krom individuals from Vietnam held a protest, seeking asylum in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian government subsequently permitted them to stay in Cambodia and recognized them as citizens. [18]

Nearby Wat Samaki Rangsey Pagoda in western Phnom Penh serves as a temporary residence for many Khmer Krom who have fled Vietnam. All those staying there believe that the Vietnamese government has mistreated and discriminated against them. Many other Khmer individuals have the same sentiments against Vietnam. 

In December 2010, the Khmer community in Cambodia celebrated the 62nd International Human Rights Day. During the event, they accused the Vietnamese government of dictatorial rule, violating freedom of expression, the right to education, and freedom of religion and belief. [19]

The Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation in Cambodia has constantly opposed the Vietnamese government through various means. One example is the report submitted to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2019.

In the report, in addition to addressing the Vietnamese government's restriction on learning the Khmer language, they also highlighted issues of mistreatment and racial discrimination.

Specifically, the report stated that Khmer people in Vietnam face restrictions on freedom of speech. While over 700 media organizations are licensed by the government nationwide, there is no independent media outlet for the millions of Khmer people living in the Mekong Delta. Moreover, some Khmer-language TV programs broadcast content that propagates Vietnamese government policies instead of allowing Khmer people to express their views and concerns freely. [20]

Another case occurred on Nov. 28, 2014, when a symbolic Khmer Krom welcome gate in Tra Vinh Province (Vietnam), leading to Preah Trapeang Province (Cambodia), was dismantled without the consent or consultation of the Vietnamese Khmer people. [21]

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese government has always claimed that its policies do not discriminate against Khmer Buddhism. According to the government, all executive councils of the VBS in the southwestern provinces and cities have members who are Khmer Buddhist monks. The government also claims that these monks lead the VBS and that their representation has increased yearly. [22] 

Because they disagreed with the Vietnamese government, during the 2007 protest in Soc Trang Province, Khmer Buddhist followers requested that the government allow Khmer Buddhist leaders to be independent, have the right to decide on the ordination of monks, have the freedom to teach religious programs in pagodas, enhance Khmer language education at secondary schools and above, and provide course materials covering the culture, history, and geography of Cambodia. [23]

However, police surrounded the temples of the leading monks taking part in the protest and detained them only a few days after the demonstration. [24]

After the protest, many monks were expelled from pagodas, and some were kept under house arrest or detained without any legal order. Many of them reported being interrogated and physically beaten. By May 10, 2007, in Soc Trang Province, the government had sentenced five monks to 2-4 years in prison while 25 other monks were expelled from the Sangha and sent back to their hometowns, where they continued to be monitored by the state. [25]

For these reasons, many Khmer Buddhist followers continue to cross the border to escape mistreatment and discrimination by the Vietnamese government to this day.

The Mismanagement of Khmer Buddhism through the “Solidarity Association of Patriotic Khmer Buddhist Monks”

Before 1975, the Khmer people had independent Khmer Buddhist associations similar to other Buddhist sects. After 1975, these associations were dissolved by the Communist government, and monks were forced to join the VBS. [26]

By 1993, the Vietnamese government recognized the emergence of several complex political and social issues in the southwest. Under government management, it established the Solidarity Association of Patriotic Khmer Buddhist Monks (“Association”). [27] The establishment of the Association is similar to the founding of the Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics. Both of these two organizations are controlled by the Vietnamese government.

In truth, despite being established by the Vietnamese government, the Association often experiences conflicts, overlaps, and encroachments of power by the provincial VBS's executive council.
Khmer Krom monks pray at a temple in Phnom Penh during a protest in 2007. Photo: RFA.

Further events showed more conflicts between the Association and the VBS. On June 2, 2022, the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation in Cambodia sent a request to the Vietnamese government, calling for protection of the human rights of the Khmer people in southern Vietnam. In this request, they also asked permission to establish an independent Theravada Buddhist organization separate from the VBS. [28]

For instance, on numerous occasions, the Association made independent disciplinary decisions, sent monks to attend training courses, or appointed abbots to temples without notifying or seeking permission from the VBS. Even the government acknowledges that the overlap between these two organizations has diminished the role of the VBS’s executive council, leading to internal conflicts within Buddhism and causing problems in managing religious activities. [29]

However, above all, the monks of the Association still act as a dedicated arm of the government in managing and resolving internal issues within Khmer Buddhism.

An example of this occurred on May 16, 2013, when the police openly raided Ta Set Pagoda in Soc Trang Province to arrest two monks, Thach Thuol and Lieu Ny, accusing them of anti-state activities. [30] Both managed to escape with the help of hundreds of followers who stood in the way of the police entering the pagoda.

Following this incident, the Association in Soc Trang Province issued a statement forcing the two monks to be defrocked and vacate their positions, even though they did not violate the prohibitions of the Buddhist order. [31]

Shortly afterwards, these two monks were arrested while attempting to cross the border into Cambodia and were sentenced to four to six years in prison.

On the same day, the Association ordered monk Ly Chanh Da at Prey Chop Pagoda in Vinh Chau, Soc Trang Province, to defrock, but he did not comply. Immediately after, the Association requested the intervention of local authorities to force him to comply. [32]

In 2007, after the protest for independence by Khmer Buddhist followers, the local government and monks associated with the Association forcibly defrocked at least 20 monks and expelled them from their temples. [33]

Additionally, the government and the Association decided to force a Buddhist monk to leave the monkhood and expelled him from the sangha for opposing them. [34]


Throughout its tumultuous history, Khmer Buddhism has remained a relatively small community, increasingly divided due to multidirectional influences, especially negative ones.

In addition to the influences mentioned above, the conversion of believers within this community to other religions cannot be ignored. As of 2015, more than 2,000 Khmer individuals in nine provinces in the southwest region converted to Protestantism. [35] As a result, the future of Khmer Buddhism in Vietnam looks bleak, similar to how old and discarded saffron-colored robes gradually lose their color over time.


1. Giáo hội Phật giáo Việt Nam, (2017). Văn kiện Đại hội đại biểu Phật giáo toàn quốc lần thứ VIII, nhiệm kỳ 2017-2022, Hà Nội, tr. 20.

2. Hoàng Thị Lan. (2019). Transformations of Theravada Buddhism in The Khmer Community in the Southwest part of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, tr 3-12.

3. See [2]

4. Khmer Krom Monks Cross Borders to Learn Their History. (2022, March 28). New Naratif.

5. Philip Taylor. (2023, November 14). Searching for a Khmer Monastic Higher Education in Post-Socialist Vietnam. ANU Press. (282-283).

6. See [5]

7. See [4]

8. See [4]

9. See [4]

10. Khmer Krom in Cambodia Mark Loss of Their Homeland. (2013, June 4). RFA.

11. Submission to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights -The 3rd Cycle Review of the Universal Periodic Review of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (2019). Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation.

12. See [4]

13. Ở nước CHXHCN Việt Nam không tồn tại “Quyền của người bản địa”. (2008, September 21). Tạp chí của Ban Tuyên giáo Trung ương.

14. See [4]

15. Người Khmer Krom đòi Nam Bộ là 'vô lý'. (2014, September 17). BBC.

16. See [15]

17. See [4]

18. Campuchia nhận cho những người Khmer Krom Việt Nam được tị nạn chính trị. (2005, August 5). RFA.

19. Khmer Krom tố cáo Việt Nam vi phạm nhân quyền. (2010, December 10). RFA.

20. See [11]

21. See [11]

22. See [2]

23. Rights Abuses of Ethnic Khmer in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. (2009, January 21). HRW.

24. See [23]

25. See [23]

26. See [11]

27. Hội Đoàn kết sư sãi Khmer yêu nước – Một tổ chức gắn Đạo với đời của Phật giáo Nam Tông Khmer Việt Nam. (2020). Chùa Phật học Xá lợi.

28. Remembrance Day: Open Letter to the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (2022, June 2). Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation.

29. See [2]

30. Khmer Krom Monks in Hiding from Vietnamese Authorities. (2013, May 17). RFA.

31. See [30]

32. See [30]

33. See [23]

34. See [23]

35. See [2]

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