Then, soon after his death last year, friends found a collection of the monk's poetry tucked under stacks of old Buddhist texts. On worn pages were handwritten, carefully crafted poems describing his memories of labor camps — infant executions, starvation and dreams of escaping to America.
Now followers are seeking to publish the poetry, even as the discovery of this vivid historical record of the atrocities has reopened for many a painful time in their own lives that they still have not reconciled.
"It put us in tears again," said Samkhann Khoeun, 45, who studied under Ly Van. "We couldn't believe it. When I read (the work), it was so vivid. It refreshed the memory."
Everyone knew the basics of Ly Van's life, Khoeun said. "But we didn't know the details and no one ever asked. He was so busy helping us," Khoeun said.
Born in 1917 in a small Cambodian village, Ly Van and his family lived through the 1970s rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, which perpetrated one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. An estimated 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease and executions due to the radical policies of the communist group. According to the temple's biography of Ly Van, he was forced to work on farms and public projects for 14 hours a day. It was during this time that the monk witnessed mass executions and large-scale starvation.
In early 1979 when Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia, Ly Van and thousands of others fled to Thailand through dangerous terrain and later ended up in Lowell. Today some 20,000 Cambodians reside in or around the city, making it second only to Long Beach, California, for the largest number of Cambodians living in the United States.
In Lowell, Ly Van helped establish the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, and he led the Glory Buddhist Temple from 1988 until his death in January 2008.
Khoeun and others found the manuscript just days after Ly Van's body was cremated.
In one translated verse, Ly Van writes about how he and other refugees fled to Thailand by traveling through treacherous mountains packed with thieves and land mines. It was a well-known trek where Thai soldiers pushed refugees over cliffs at gunpoint while those fleeing tumbled over each other trying to escape. Ly Van wrote:
"Surrounded by corpses as we walked, slept and ate; an unbearably foul smell
"Emanated from the swollen, rotten bodies, most of which were missing limbs and heads."
He also wrote of the conditions of a refugee camp in Thailand where women were raped, men were frequently beaten and families faced filthy living facilities.
"...we had to sleep on the bare concrete floor, like animals
"Dirty water and stench-filled raw sewage floated everywhere
"We were swarmed by mosquitoes constantly, resulting in rashes all over our bodies."
Kowith Kret, whose parents were executed by the Khmer Rouge, said it was hard to read the monk's account because it brought back the past. "But it is the fact," said Kret, who also studied under Ly Van. "People have to accept the experience they've been through."
George Chigas, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who has seen copies of the poems, said the monk wrote in a rare 11-syllable meter style that is more than 1,000 years old in Cambodian literature. "It showed great devotion to cultural tradition and, at the same time, tries to preserve something that had been lost," Chigas said.
That's important, Chigas said, especially since the Khmer Rouge regime burned old texts and killed scores of writers and artists.
He compared Ly Van's writing to Loung Ung's memoir, "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers," as an act of "trying to put old demons to rest."
So far more than half of Ly Van's poems have been translated from Khmer to English, Khoeun said. Members of the Glory Buddhist Temple are selling a CD of Ly Van's work read in Khmer and expect the rest of the manuscript to be translated by the end of the year. They also are aiming to raise $40,000 to get 5,000 bilingual copies published by April 2010.
So far, two publishers in Cambodia have expressed interest and the group still is searching for a U.S. publisher.
After reading the poems, Khoeun said, he and other refugees have more questions for Ly Van. Questions, such as, when did he have time to write? What was life like in a refugee camp right before coming to America? And how many late relatives of the refugees did Ly Van know?
"He knew my grandfather who died right when I was born. I never asked him about that," Khoeun said. "I guess I always took him for granted."