Tolerable Others: Buddhism and the Cambodian Diaspora in Italy
Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Riverside

UC Riverside Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Riverside

Tolerable Others: Buddhism and the Cambodian Diaspora in Italy


Following the 1975-1979 genocide, Cambodian survivors in exile appropriated land, funded and established clear physical boundaries to house sacred religious community spaces. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had specifically dismantled religious institutions. As a result, an estimated 12-100 monks survived out of 65,000 (Harris 2013:135). This dissertation project examines forms of belonging among Cambodian refugees in Italy through the lens of Buddhist practice. While the Catholic Church resettled 3,000 Southeast Asian refugees throughout Italy in 1979, many of whom were practicing Buddhists (Gheddo 2015), no research has been done on this refugee population to date. My project remedies this gap by pursuing three research questions: 1) How is the temple a site of fraught integration? 2) How does religion mediate refugees’ sense of national belonging, as well as their relationship with the homeland and wider diaspora? 3) What does it mean to have objects and spirits be so crucial in the coproduction of Buddhism and Khmerness? To answer these questions, I examine the everyday experiences of Cambodian refugees in contemporary Italy through a study of a local Buddhist temple which stands at the center of community life.I conducted fieldwork in Lombardy from September 2019-March 2020. My methods are informed by interdisciplinary approaches to the study of religion and ethics. Grounded in anthropological training, fieldwork is a primary source of data through oral histories with particular attention to reflexivity in the field. This dissertation argues that the constellation of Wat Khmer Buddhist temples transnationally engrosses debates that merit further inquiry within the European and U.S. contexts of noted xenophobia. The findings suggest that, contrary to functionalist models of assimilation that romanticize refugees as resisting modernity through religion, Cambodian refugees in Italy use local cultures and their specific histories to shape their desires to simultaneously belong and maintain difference through the Buddhist temple, a religious opportunity structure that engages local Italian politics, war memories, and transnational Buddhist networks.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View