Southeast Asian Refugees in North America
- Carl L. Bankston IIICarl L. Bankston IIISociology, Tulane University
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have historically been nations with large Buddhist populations. While Mahāyāna Buddhism predominates in Vietnam, most people in Cambodia and Laos have been dedicated to Theravāda Buddhism. In 1975, these three countries came under the domination of Communist governments, which had earlier been in conflict with factions militarily supported by the United States. This led to the beginnings of the massive movement of refugees from Southeast Asia to North America. An especially radical regime had taken power in Cambodia, and after war broke out between Cambodia and Vietnam the flow of refugees became a flood.
All of the new governments of these countries were hostile to independent religious organizations and practices. The Khmer Rouge in power in Cambodia took its antagonism to religion to an extreme, attempting to violently eradicate traditional Buddhist practices and institutions. As refugees settled in ever-greater numbers in North America and other locations, they established Buddhist temples and other organizations in the new homelands. In consequence, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao communities in the United States and Canada have also become sites for the rapid growth of North American Buddhism.
Southeast Asian Buddhism has become a part of a pluralistic religious environment, adding new rites, celebrations, and cultural activities to American society. Buddhism has also played a central part in maintaining ethnic identity among refugee populations and their descendants, as well as in helping Buddhists adapt to life under changing circumstances.