Judge hands down victory for embattled Cambodian Buddhist temple in Oakland

By Paul T. Rosynsk, Oakland Tribune, Sept 16, 2008

OAKLAND, CA (USA) -- For the city's Cambodian Buddhists, the past three years have been filled with everything but love, joy and compassion.

Instead, about 600 refugees and immigrants have found themselves battling "outsiders" in court for control of an East Oakland temple they successfully argued was illegally taken from them.

The battle, which some described as a "civil war," began in March 2005 when a Massachusetts-based Cambodian Buddhist organization took control of the local temple and its assets in an election the local group said was illegal.

The local group argued in court that the International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center through intimidation and a smear campaign gained control of the board of directors and then voted to transfer all assets, more than $400,000 worth of property and cash, to the Massachusetts nonprofit organization.

Once the transfer was complete, the International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center locked the Oakland group out its own temple and refused to give it about $100,000 that the group had saved in hopes of building a new temple in the city.

Although the Oakland group won its court claim in January, it wasn't until last week that an Alameda County Superior Court Judge made a ruling that set guidelines on how the group could win back its temple and about $100,000 in cash.

"It has been a long struggle to get to where we are," said David Sternfeld, an attorney
representing the Oakland Cambodian Buddhist Society Temple. "Our clients are, thankfully, very patient people. We are just hoping that by this point in time, we can get our temple back."

The three-year ordeal was caused, in part, by the Buddhists' lack of a central religious organization. Instead, various communities throughout the world create their own local "parishes" or temples.

The International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center wanted to change that, and according to Sternfeld and court documents, began taking over local Buddhist temples throughout the United States.

The way in which the group tried to secure a national organization angered many local residents, Sternfeld and court documents said.

In Oakland, the group brought in outsiders and preyed on internal disputes between temple members to create climate in which temple members began to argue with each other over the future of the organization.

They posted notes on red paper or written in red ink, a threatening color in Cambodia, warning others not to argue against them, documents say. They also accused elder monks of inappropriate activities and eventually forced the election of a new board of directors. That board voted to merge the Oakland temple with the Massachusetts organization.

Now, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jon Tigar has ruled that a new election must take place and be witnessed by a "special master."

Only members of the Oakland temple before it merged can vote in the new election, Tigar ruled.

The new board of directors will then decide who gets control of the assets.

Sternfeld said he is hopeful that the Massachusetts group will give up its fight for control of the local temple and return the property and money it took. However, he said, he thinks the group will argue that it already spent the cash.

If both sides are unable to agree on the selection of a special master and how the election will take place, each must submit competing plans to Tigar, who said he will demand a progress report next month.

G. Robert Woofin, an attorney representing the International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center, did not return phone calls seeking comment.