Cablegate: Khmer Krom Religious Freedom in Mekong Delta

DE RUEHHI #0784/01 2290854
O 170854Z AUG 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

SUBJECT: Khmer Krom Religious Freedom in Mekong Delta

Ref: 08 HCMC 1056

HANOI 00000784 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Vietnam's leadership continues to pay close
attention to the country's Khmer Krom community, and has spent
considerable resources to build new Theravada Buddhist pagodas, a
Pali-language high school, and a university-level Theravada Buddhist
Institute. Contrary to reports from some foreign NGOs, Vietnam's
approximately two million Khmer Krom, most of whom are concentrated
in the Mekong Delta, are able to maintain their vibrant Theravada
Buddhist traditions and are largely free to worship as they please.
Theravada monks and others told a visiting IRF official that they
were treated fairly within the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha (VBS).
The GVN actively cultivates Theravada Buddhist leaders who support
"national unity," even granting monks positions within local
government. As elsewhere, the line is political: Monks who engage
in political dissent or activities that the government terms as
"separatism," such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam or the
"Dega" Movement in the Central Highlands, do face restrictions. END

2. (SBU) In meetings with the central Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha in
Hanoi and later in meetings in Can Tho, Soc Trang and Tra Vinh
PolOff and IRFOff took a closer look at religious freedom for the
Khmer Krom ethnic minority residing in the Mekong Delta who practice
Theravada Buddhism. In each of the three provinces the officers met
with Vice Chairmen of the People's Committee, heads of the Committee
for Religious Affairs (CRA), and the Executive Council of the
Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha. In Can Tho, they visited the new
Theravada Buddhist Institute. In Soc Trang, the officers visited
the 400 year old Bat Pagoda and the Pali Language High School. In
Tra Vinh Province, they visited the Ang Pagoda built in 950 AD --
one of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam. The total Khmer population in
these three provinces is approximately one million (around 27
percent of the total population). According to Theravada Buddhist
monks and Protestant ministers, 98 percent of Khmer in the Mekong
Delta are Theravada Buddhists. In these three provinces there are
approximately 400 Theravada Buddhist temples and pagodas.

Theravada Buddhism and the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha
--------------------------------------------- --------

3. (SBU) In 1981, the nine separate Buddhist sects in Vietnam were
united into the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha (VBS). This union merged
both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism into one overarching Buddhist
church. The church is lead by a Supreme Patriarch and five
deputies. One of the five deputies is a Khmer Krom Theravada
Buddhist monk. Beneath the deputies of the Supreme Patriarch, the
church is guided by Dharma and Executive Councils. The Dharma
Council's role is to address theological questions, while the
Executive Council's responsibility is to oversee the day-to-day
management of the VBS. The Dharma Council has 160-170 total members
with 30 standing members that meet monthly. The entire Dharma
Council meets annually at the end of each calendar year.

4. (SBU) According to Most Venerable Danh Nhuong, Deputy to the
Supreme Patriarch and a leader within the Dharma Council, within the
Dharma Council Theravada Buddhist monks are allowed to address
individual doctrinal questions without interference from Mahayana
members of the council. Theravada Buddhists also confirmed that the
day-to-day running of pagodas and community outreach are also not
compromised by their Mahayana brethren. Membership in both the
Dharma and Executive councils is divided proportionally between
Mahayana and Theravada monks based on their total membership in
Vietnam. The central VBS also explained that pagoda maintenance and
restoration is managed on a rotational schedule. Pol and IRF
officers witnessed many newly painted and well-kept Theravada
pagodas throughout their travels in the Mekong Delta that seemed to
confirm this.

5. (SBU) Khmer Krom leaders said that in reality Theravada monks
are actually over-represented in leadership positions in the Dharma
and Executive Councils and at the provincial and local levels where
Khmer are prevalent. At the provincial level, the VBS is also run
by an Executive Council with a chief monk and two or three deputies.
A similar structure also exists in large cities, and the VBS is
currently planning to emulate the GVN structure of provincial,
district and commune leadership. In the three provinces we visited
-- Can Tho, Soc Trang and Tra Vinh -- all of the chief monks are
Khmer Krom Theravada Buddhists.

6. (SBU) Theravada Buddhist monks also participate in local
government. For example, the Theravada deputy to the Supreme
Patriarch is also a member of the National Assembly and additionally
serves as rector of the new Theravada Buddhist Institute in Can Tho.
The Chief Monk at the Ang Pagoda in Tra Vinh Province is also a
member of the Central Committee of the Vietnam Fatherland Front in
Hanoi and is Vice Chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front in Tra
Vinh Province. Moreover, each province has Theravada Buddhist monks

HANOI 00000784 002.2 OF 003

who are also members of their provincial People's Council.


7. (SBU) Theravada Buddhist leaders in each province were very open
in explaining the sensitive, but not uncommon, process of removing
monks who had violated their vows. Theravada monks must strictly
obey 227 prohibitions or commandments; if they violate more than
four -- typically involving drunkenness or sexual relations -- they
are stripped of their monk's robes. The process is traditionally
handled at the pagoda or temple level where the monk resides unless
the sin is serious or a judgment cannot be reached by the pagoda
leadership, in which case the provincial VBS executive committee
decides with input from other members of the executive committee.
Once disrobed, individual monks are allowed to rejoin the monkhood
if they confess their wrongdoings and make restitution. Theravada
Buddhist leaders in Soc Trang and Can Tho insisted that the 2007
disrobing of several Khmer Krom monks was legitimate, though they
conceded that standard procedures may not have been followed.

Religious Holidays and Education

8. (SBU) The Khmer Krom monks with whom we spoke reported they are
allowed to celebrate all of their religious holidays for their
entire length and are not required to seek permission from local
officials. Nor are there restrictions on Khmer youth joining the
monkhood. The monks noted that it is very common for young males to
join for three years or longer and then later leave the monkhood.
Of the approximately 50,000 Buddhist monks nationwide, 8,000 are
Theravada, though an additional 4,000 "short-term" monks also reside
at the more than 500 Theravada Khmer temples in the Mekong Delta.
The central CRA provides copies of Theravada scriptures to most of
the pagodas in the region. Traditionally, most of these temples
oversee intensive programs in Pali language during the summer when
children are out of school.

9. (SBU) According to GVN regulations, any village with more than
100 households is permitted to build a temple, and PolOff and IRFOff
observed many being constructed. Economic growth has resulted in
increased donations to build individual temples. In Soc Trang,
Khmer Krom monks commented that it used to take 15-20 years to raise
enough money to build one new pagoda, but that these funds are now
easily raised in a year or a year and a half. Monks in all three
provinces noted that Theravada pagodas are expanding their
charitable assistance based on increased donations from followers as
well. The pagodas traditionally assist in giving food support and
in building homes for the poor in their communities. In Tra Vinh
Province, all major religions -- including Catholic, Cao Dai, Hoa
Hao and Buddhist -- join together for a community "welfare day" to
assist the poor.

10. (SBU) At all levels of education, Khmer students are present in
numbers proportional to their population. Vietnamese is taught in
elementary school, but in grades 6-12 Khmer students receive
education in both Khmer and Vietnamese. Many pagodas offer
additional Khmer-language courses. As part of the government's
program to support ethnic minorities, Khmer students at all levels
are exempt from school fees. According to statistics provided by
the People's Committees of the three provinces, there are more than
315 schools that teach both Khmer and Vietnamese, and these serve
nearly 150,000 students. The 6,000 Khmer teachers at these schools
represent more than 20 percent of all the teachers in the three
provinces. Additionally, 70 percent of Khmer students graduate from
the 9th grade (compared to 80 percent of the majority ethnic Kinh),
and of the Khmer students who enroll in high school, 71 percent
graduate. In addition, the three provinces manage a total of 15
ethnic Khmer Krom boarding high schools that serve more than 4,000
students, and an additional two schools are under construction.
Currently, the three provinces boast more than 2,000 ethnic Khmer
university or technical school students. Khmer families also
benefit from other government programs focused on ethnic minorities
such as free health insurance.

Theravada Buddhist Institute

11. (SBU) At the recommendation of the Dharma Council, the central
Executive Council of the VBS in April 2006 voted to open a new
university-level Buddhist institute in Can Tho dedicated to teaching
Theravada Buddhism. In July 2007, the first class of 68 students
from 9 southern provinces matriculated. At the institute, classes
are taught in Khmer, Pali and Vietnamese, while Sanskrit is also
offered to enable students to read ancient Theravada scriptures.
The school is currently finishing plans to construct a permanent
facility for the institute, which the rector hoped would be
completed by the end of 2010. The GVN donated land for the new

HANOI 00000784 003.2 OF 003

facility, as well as half of the construction costs. Once the new
facility is completed, the institute plans to have a total of 800
students, with room and board provided. The rector said that the
school receives most of its teaching materials from Cambodia and
Thailand, an while the institute initially encountered some
difficulties in finding qualified teachers -- most of the monk
professors at the institute previously studied at the Mahayana
Buddhist Institute in HCMC -- an exchange program now allows
teachers from Cambodia and Thailand to teach at the institute.

Pali Language High School

12. (SBU) The Pali Language High School, founded in 1994 by the Soc
Trang People's Committee, covers two city blocks in downtown Soc
Trang and includes dormitories for students, several temples and the
Soc Trang history museum. The school's rector also serves as Vice
Chair of the National Dharma Council and as Chief Monk of the VBS in
Soc Trang Province. The school serves Khmer Krom students from 13
provinces throughout the Mekong Delta, admits 50-70 students each
year, and is extremely competitive. The GVN gives each student a
monthly stipend of 520,000 VND ($29) in addition to providing free
room and board and health care.

13. (SBU) Before entering the school, most of the students would
have already been monks for at least three years and completed the
mandatory three-year elementary monk education. The school offers a
5 year educational program covering grades 6-12. According to the
rector, some graduates of the high school return to their home
pagodas and oversee Pali language courses there, but a majority of
the graduates leave the monkhood to find good jobs once they have
acquired a quality education. The most exceptional students proceed
to attend either the Mahayana Buddhist Institute in HCMC or the
Theravada Buddhist Institute in Can Tho. Over 700 students have
graduated from the High School in its 15-year existence. In 2005,
the Ministry of Education and Training invested 28 billion VND ($1.6
million) to assist in the expansion and in building a new campus.
The school is currently renovating its older facilities and hopes to
expand further.

14. (U) This cable was coordinated with Consulate Ho Chi Minh City
and cleared by the IRF Office.


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