A single stone lay on the earth.
It was mid-February and hundreds of folks — mostly Cambodian Americans, but also dozens of monks from across Southern California — had gathered behind Long Beach’s largest Buddhist congregational temple, on Willow Street, for a religious groundbreaking called the First Stone Ceremony.
Workers lowered the stone into the ground as a symbol of what could eventually rise up there: A new temple, to be named Preah Vihear, that will boast Cambodian architecture and resemble a traditional pagoda.
The temple will also provide Long Beach’s Buddhist community with a long-sought, special place of prayer and could serve as a cultural anchor for Cambodiatown, the city’s large Southeast Asian enclave that has largely blended, nondescriptly, into Long Beach’s general architectural aesthetic.
“This is a historic day for Long Beach,” architect Cameron Crockett, who began designing the Preah Vihear in 2018, said during the Feb. 16 service. “It’s been a longtime coming, but it’s finally happening.”
But the First Stone Ceremony belied simmering tensions among officials, monks and the congregation of Khemara Buddhikarama, the current temple that Preah Vihear will supplement.
Plans to build the new temple, construction for which will begin in earnest this month, have been in the works for more than six years. But strong opposition from a faction of the city’s robust Cambodian community threatened to halt the project after two monks were evicted — and two others left voluntarily — from the temple last October.
On the surface, the dispute between the monks and the board of directors that runs Khemara Buddhikarama, commonly called Wat Willow, was over whether Preah Vihear, with it’s $2 million price tag, should be built at all.
But beneath that lies a struggle over power and money, and questions about whether the authority of the monastery is religious — held by the monks — or bureaucratic, with the board of directors at the head.
Both the board and the evicted monks, led by Thet Sim and maintaining a handful of followers, have accused the other of financial misdeeds and subterfuge in an attempt to gain control.
“(Sim) has a passion for power and money and he wanted to do things his own way,” said board member Kimthai Kuoch, who also happens to be the CEO of the Cambodian Association of America. “As the board of directors, we have a legal responsibility to protect the temple.”
Sim was unavailable for comment, despite multiple attempts over several weeks.
But Oni Vitandham, an advocate for the monks, who has effectively taken over as their spokeswoman, described Sim — for whom she also acts as an intermediary — in multiple interviews as the defender of the congregation.
“(Kuoch) has invaded this temple, he changed the bylaws and he tortures the monks,” Vitandham, who lived in the temple as a teenager in the 1980s, said. “He’s using this new temple to apply for grants and more money for himself.”
Both sides have denied wrongdoing. But the rift has, at times, threatened to tear the congregation apart.
That was made clear during the First Stone Ceremony. A few hundred feet from Wat Willow, Sim and his cohorts, and about a dozen followers sat beneath several interconnected tents.
The evicted monks there call it the “Sidewalk Temple.” They have lived there, shared meals there and prayed there since their eviction.
♦ ♦ ♦
Wat Willow initially opened in Hawaiian Gardens in 1979.
It then had a brief stint in a Lakewood house before moving to its current location on Willow Street.
But Wat Willow, which operates financially as a nonprofit, does not resemble a typical temple, except for a couple of Cambodian architectural flourishes. Rather, the temple’s members and hierarchy describe it as a multipurpose room, a place fit for community events — but not prayer and reflection.
That’s why everyone, at least at first, agreed that a new temple was necessary, according to Kuoch and Vitandham.
“This is not a temple,” Kuoch said in early January. “This is a dining hall. We owe it to our elders to build this temple. It’s for them and for future generations to enjoy.”
Sieng Leng, the temple’s new head monk, said — through an interpreter — that temples are meant to be “sacred” places.
“People eat and do activities here,” Leng said, “but the new temple will be a place for prayer.”
It was the estimated cost of the temple, however, that first prompted anxiety among some members — and Sim.
Sim, at the time Wat Willow’s head monk, thought that money, raised through donations, would be better spent on fixing more-pressing issues, such as a leaky roof in the main hall and flooding in the women’s restroom, Vitandham said.
The board, Vitandham added, refused to do that work — an accusation Kuoch denied.
“Of course everybody wanted a nice temple for the community,” Vitandham said. “But Thet Sim refused to raise money for it and that’s when the problem started.”
The board, however, said it was a struggle over power that caused Sim to diverge from plans to build the pagoda, according to Kuoch.
At the heart of the board’s argument — and, it appears, the source of its concern — was that Sim’s efforts to influence the temple’s expenses ran counter to tradition, according to multiple interviews with officials in recent months.
Leng, for example, said monks are only supposed to deal with the temple’s religious matters. The board, he said, is supposed to handle financial decisions.
That changed in 2015.
Sim was appointed chairman of the board. It was the first time in Wat Willow’s history the same man was both head monk and board chairman.
“We made an (exception) because we wanted to build this temple with Thet Sim as head monk,” Kuoch said in January. “And we wanted him to have more power and be a part of that.”
In August 2016, Sim signed the architectural service agreement with architect Cameron Crockett. And in January 2018, Long Beach okayed the blueprints for the 6,960-square-foot Preah Vihear.
The board of directors, including Sim, agreed to hold a groundbreaking ceremony on April 7, 2018.
But days before the ceremony, for reasons that remain unclear, Sim decided he did not want to build the temple anymore and demanded the ceremony be canceled, Kuoch said.
“We had to beg Thet Sim to let us go on with the ceremony,” Kuoch said. “And he let us, but with restrictions — he wouldn’t let anyone speak or accept our certificate from the city.
“It was,” he added, “an embarrassment.”
Still, the ceremony went ahead, with Mayor Robert Garcia wedging a shovel into the ground in front of hundreds of locals and public figures.
Vitandham did not directly answer questions about why Sim changed his mind.
But Sim’s supporters have argued the groundbreaking was inappropriate, complaints that have continued — even into 2020.
At a City Council meeting in January, Vathana Prak and Sopheak Means, advocates for the evicted monks, argued during the public comment period that the 2018 groundbreaking shouldn’t have happened because, even though Long Beach officials approved the blueprints, Wat Willow’s leadership had not yet received construction permits.
“For weeks, we stood before you, pleading for help and you went sideline, behind our backs to approve something we pleaded against,” Means said to Garcia. “We don’t need anything to be built.”
Garcia responded by informing the two women, who had made their seventh appearance before the council, that he was not the authority to approve such building permits.
“It was a symbolic ceremony,” Kuoch said in January.
The plans for the new temple were “permit ready,” he said, but the board needed to pay for it.
“Once you get the permit, you only have 90 days to dig into the ground,” Kuoch said. “But at that time, we didn’t have a contractor.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Either way, tensions at Wat Willow only intensified after that.
Months after the 2018 groundbreaking, Sim failed to win reelection as board chairman. A man named Chuon Kang succeeded him.
“After that,” Kuoch said of Sim’s reversal on building the temple, “people lost confidence in him and they didn’t vote for him to be reelected.”
Vitandham, however, disagreed with that assessment.
Sim was removed from the board and the bank account without his knowledge, she said, prompting his followers to demand his reinstatement.
“Thet Sim did not want control,” Vitandham said. “He just wanted balance and he didn’t want the board to misuse the money.”
What followed was a series of mutual accusations of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, followed by denials from both sides — and more tit-for-tat finger-pointing.
In November 2018, the temple’s four monks — Sim, Tith Bun, Serun Chea and Granderson Path — collected $48,471 in donations during Kathina, Wat Willow’s largest event of the year.
But, according to Kuoch, they gave $14,995 to the board — and only after the congregation members who donated and board Treasurer Kalmine Ly challenged them.
In total, the board has accused the four former monks of collecting more than $100,000 of donation money from November 2018 to July 2019 without accounting for it.
Supporters of the monks have said some of the money went back to donors and that it was the board who mismanaged thousands of dollars meant for the new temple.
“That is a lie,” Vitandham said. “They are the ones who have misused over $300,000 and refused to show us a bank statement or expense report.”
Vitandham did not provide evidence the board misused money.
Kuoch, for his part, said he has followed both the temple’s bylaws and state law regulating nonprofits.
The board, in fact, raised $343,209 for the construction of the new temple from October 2014 to April 2019, and spent $126,236 on government fees, architecture fees and advertisements, according to Wat Willow’s official bank statements, which Kuoch provided.
“We have all of the bank statements,” Kuoch said. “There’s the money right there. We use checks to pay for everything. We have to have proof. You can’t just accuse people without evidence.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The debate over the finances soon spilled over to the temple’s rites.
Sim began preaching to elders and congregation members during sermons that the board members were supposed to worship the monks and that the monks should have total control over the bank accounts and decision-making of the temple, said Peng Leong, an adviser to the board.
“We used to all be friendly together, and then (Sim) broke us up,” Leong said. “We were so happy together and then he transformed those people. He brainwashed them.”
During a board meeting in 2018, according to video of the gathering, nearly 100 congregants — about half supporting Sim — got caught in a whirlwind of shouting, swearing and finger-pointing. At one point, a woman snatched the microphone from a board member — demanding Sim be reinstated as chairman.
More chaotic events ensued, Kuoch said.
“The monk is supposed to calm his community down in situations like that,” Kuoch said. “But Thet Sim did nothing. That day, he just watched it happen.”
So, on May 16, the board served Sim a 60-day notice to vacate the premises. Bun, Sim’s second-in-command, was served with a 30-day notice.
“The board voted to evict him instead of filing a criminal lawsuit,” Kuoch said. “We didn’t want to see a monk in handcuffs.”
But Vitandham countered.
“The monk has the right to protect the temple from fraud,” she said.
Sim and Bun refused to leave the premises at first.
“The chairman is not the owner of that building,” Vitandham said, “and he’s not the landlord.”
The temple’s 1980 bylaws, it seems, provide some support for Vitandham’s argument: Once the property was paid off, the bylaws say, the temple would be “dedicated to Buddha, to the monkhood and to the Buddhist religion so that it will become the property of every Cambodian Buddhist in the future.”
But the bylaws also say the temple belongs to the Wat Willow nonprofit corporation.
Either way, in October, Sim and Bun left the temple. Two others, Chea and Path, went with them voluntarily.
♦ ♦ ♦
After the monks were evicted and they set up the “Sidewalk Temple,” Wat Willow closed for 10 days, for repairs and so the board could hire six new monks.
That’s when a series of protests from nearly 60 Sim supporters began — lasting for months.
In December, for example, dozens of protesters gathered outside Hak Heang Restaurant, on East Anaheim Street, which hosted the Cambodian Association of America’s 44th Anniversary Gala. Kuoch attended the gala.
Among the protesters was Chheang Tang, 90, who sat in her wheelchair and held up a sign supporting Sim.
“This is sad and depressing,” Tang said through her granddaughter, who translated from Khmer. “We need justice for the monks. We need them to go back into the temple.”
The protesting has since mellowed — but the “Sidewalk Temple” remains.
And its informal group of members have settled into a routine, washing dishes in a bucket outside, preparing three meals a day and practicing Buddhist rituals as best they can.
It’s easy to spot Bun — who also declined, through Vitandham, requests for comment — sitting in his bright orange robes outside the oldest Buddhist temple in Long Beach. The monk eats his lunch almost every day among a plethora of signs that demand justice for him and the others.
The monks and their supporters, meanwhile, said they are in the process of taking legal action against the board of directors.
The verbal recriminations have also continued.
“We have lost friends and family members because they became fanatic believers and followers of Thet Sim,” Nart Un, a longtime congregation member, said recently. “They became lost. They didn’t understand the decree of Buddha, and Thet Sim became lost himself.”
Vitandham, for her part, promised to keep defending Sim and the other monks.
“(Kuoch) wrongfully evicted these monks,” Vitandham said. “I will not give up. I’m the one that’s going to pull him down.”
It now appears the new Preah Vihear temple will soon rise up.
Whether the rift at Wat Willow will tear down the congregation, though, remains an open question.