Sok* doesn’t know if he’s Cambodian or yuon. The 30-year-old, who has been an undocumented immigrant his entire adult life, speaks the Khmer Krom dialect, which sounds similar to Vietnamese and contains loanwords. It has brought him abuse on both sides of the border.
“When I was in Kampuchea Krom, they called me Khmer, and in Cambodia, they call me yuon,” he said, referring to the Khmer word for Vietnamese which many consider racially offensive.
“I’m not clear for myself – am I Khmer or youn? Because of rhetorical attacks like that, I’m not clear about my identity.”
Despite being an ethnic Khmer living in Cambodia, Sok carries no identity papers and is fearful of being deported if caught. He said that if he returned to his home in Vietnam’s Soc Trang province (or Khleang, as Khmers call it), he would likely be arrested due to his father’s political activism, while life in Thailand, where he has spent the past decade working illegally at night, has become unbearable due to the frequent risk of arrest. His best option now, he said, is to blend into the background in Cambodia.
“I think there is not much expectation or hope in my life, if the Cambodian government does not change, does not respect or protect our rights,” he said.
Sok is a member of the Khmer Krom (literally “lower Khmer”) community, whose descendents first settled the Mekong Delta region (which is known by Cambodians as Kampuchea Krom, or “lower Cambodia”) while it was still Cambodian territory in the years of the Khmer Empire. Although the Vietnamese became the dominant ethnic group in the region centuries ago, the Khmer population retained its culture and numbers. The Vietnamese government’s official data puts the number of Khmer Krom at 1,260,640, but the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, an international Khmer Krom advocacy network, estimates the population to be around seven million.
Culturally, the Khmer Krom are very similar to their northern relations. Although they are taught the Vietnamese language at school, they speak Khmer within their communities and observe all the major Cambodian holidays. Since Theravada Buddhism, the religion of almost all Khmers worldwide including the Khmer Krom, is not traditional among ethnic Vietnamese, religion is a central cultural signifier for the group.
While the Vietnamese government maintains that it respects the rights of its Khmer minority to retain its culture, Khmer Krom migrants in Cambodia complain that the transmission of their traditions, history and religious practices are under attack by a state that seeks to impose ethnic hegemony upon minorities. In Cambodia, where local activists guess that more than a million Khmer Krom live, Khmer migrants from Vietnam often struggle to get identity cards. The Cambodian government is also accused of extraditing Khmer Krom activists to Vietnam to face prosecution under the country’s harsh restrictions on political activism.
Sreang Sovanna, a Khmer Krom monk from Soc Trang province, said that the Vietnamese government targets the local Khmer community by cracking down on education.
“Vietnam doesn’t want Khmer Krom to study their culture, their traditions, or anything else that Khmer Krom want to do,” said Sovanna, who is the head monk at Wat Samaki Rangsei, which is home to 57 Khmer Krom monks, in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district.
Sovanna said that with all public education provided in Vietnamese, Khmer Krom students must attend private lessons in pagodas to learn about their own language and culture. While Khmer language instruction is allowed in the pagodas, Sovanna said that the government has sent teachers to prison for teaching history and politics lessons. Part of his work is to help provide lesson materials to illegal Khmer Krom teachers in Vietnam.
Activists say that Cambodia’s treatment of Khmer Krom is also dismal, with authorities sometimes denying migrants identity cards on the grounds they are Vietnamese, and sending those who have been involved in activism back to Vietnam to stand trial.
“They always said that they welcome and consider the Khmer Krom as Khmer, but in practice they never comply with their word,” said Ang Chanrith of the Minority Rights Organisation, a local NGO that promotes the human rights of Khmer Krom and ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia.
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that Cambodia does not allow anyone to use its territory to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.
“We will not allow Cambodians to attack any [country], so if they do it, it will be in the courts,” he said.
“Not just Vietnam, anyone against any nation.”
The origins of the Khmer Krom in Vietnam may also serve as a hindrance to their acceptance in Cambodia. Son Chum Chuon, program officer at the Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA), said that many provincial authorities lump the Khmer Krom immigrants, who have the right to live in Cambodia under the Kingdom’s nationality laws, with ethnic Vietnamese migrants.
“Most [Khmer Krom] can have [identity cards], but for some who live in the provinces, it is difficult to get the ID card or family book because some of the local authority consider them Vietnamese people – illegal immigrants in Cambodia,” said Choun.
One of the most famous cases of a Khmer Krom being expelled is Venerable Tim Sakhorn, a Khmer Krom activist who was arrested and defrocked in Cambodia in June 2007 before being deported and jailed for a year in Vietnam on charges of undermining its national unity. The case still scares Sok, who cited the activist’s fate as a reason to keep a low profile.
“I don’t know anyone or trust anyone here in Cambodia, especially because of Tim Sakhorn,” he said.
While Sok said he is not personally involved in Khmer Krom rights campaigning, he fled from Vietnam with his family in 2001 after the authorities tried to arrest his father for his activism, although Sok said he cannot remember exactly what his father did.
His father was arrested in Banteay Meanchey in 2003 and given conditional release in November after he signed a statement promising to discontinue his political activities. The family took no chances, however, and fled to Thailand where they sought refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Although Sok said his family was convinced that they would be unsafe in both Vietnam and Cambodia, UNHCR rejected their petition on the grounds that Cambodia’s nationality laws grant citizenship to Khmer Krom.
“They told my father ‘you are Khmer, you have problems only in Vietnam. So you can go back to live in Cambodia safely’,” said Sok, adding that UNHCR drastically misunderstands the plight of many in Cambodia’s Khmer Krom population. Didian Tan, UNHCR press officer at the Bangkok office, said that she could not comment on the Khmer Krom refugee claims other than to say that the review team strives for fairness.
“We cannot comment on individual cases or groups, but in general we do thorough assessments and do thorough interviews, and try to be as fair as possible,” she said.
Thanch Khan, a 33-year-old Khmer Krom monk and activist who lives at Wat Samaki Rangsei with Sovanna, also had his UNHCR petition declined in 2010 on similar grounds.
“I don’t feel safe in Cambodia. We have a lot of spies who monitor our activities, so that’s the reason I wanted to go to Thailand,” said Khan. Sovanna said that the Wat Samaki Rangsei monks, around half of which live in the Kingdom illegally, are of particular concern to Vietnam.
“They are afraid that many of the monks can be leaders or representatives of the Khmer Krom, because the monks can promote their history to the Khmer Krom and make them stand up to fight with the Vietnamese authority,” said Sovanna. "The Vietnamese have called me their biggest enemy,” he added.
Ly Chhoun, a Khmer Krom journalist with Cambodian citizenship who runs the quarterly Khmer Krom newspaper Prey Nokor from his house in Stung Meanchey, said that he agreed to make regular reports to Vietnamese intelligence agents after he was approached during a visit to Vietnam two years ago.
“The Vietnamese authorities thought that I was a person who knows about every situation in Cambodia, so when I went back to Vietnam, they asked me to make a report about my activities in Phnom Penh,” said Chhoun, adding that he initially agreed to file reports after intelligence agents promised to improve his relatives’ living conditions back in Vietnam.
“The Vietnamese authorities forced me to do it, and if I did not say yes they would not have allowed me to come back to Cambodia,” he said, adding that he feared that noncompliance would probably result in retribution against his family.
But Chhoun said that he has only filed reports containing unremarkable information.
He added that his poor performance in the eyes of the agents led him to being detained for 48 hours, deported and banned when he returned to Vietnam last year. His nephew was also fired from the Vietnamese military police because of this.
Chhoun said that he still regularly receives requests for intelligence reports from a Vietnamese deputy provincial military police chief in Bac Lieu province. Most of the questions these days, said Chhoun, relate to the activities of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which publically supports the Khmer Krom’s quest for legitimacy and considers Cambodia’s warm relations with Hanoi a major cause of concern.
The party has been accused of resorting to racist rhetoric over the issue, with UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi telling reporters last month that he was “alarmed” by anti-Vietnamese statements made at CNRP rallies, although he added that opposition leaders had told him that it was not their intention to provoke racism or inequality.
Upon calling the number of Chhoun’s contact in Vietnam, which had the calling code of Vietnamese mobile operator Vinaphone, the answerer immediately hung up after being asked if he was the person identified by Chhoun.
Chhoun said that he does his best to undermine the Vietnamese government by running a team of five journalists across the border which secretly files stories via the internet to the Phnom Penh office. Prey Nokor newspaper, which is named after the ancient Khmer town that would eventually become Ho Chi Minh City, is illegally distributed in Vietnam both in print and online, although Chhoun said he is at a disadvantage given that around half of the Khmer Krom population cannot read Khmer.
Although he is an accredited journalist in Cambodia, the Cambodian government has twice sent him warning letters: once for criticising King Norodom Sihamoni when he did not raise the Khmer Krom issue on a state visit to Vietnam, and once for reporting on allegations that Ho Chi Minh kept several mistresses.
“[Cambodia’s government] didn’t want people in Cambodia to defame or damage the dignity of leaders of neighbouring countries,” said Chhuon on his reporting of the dead Vietnamese leader, adding that he suspected Vietnamese interference.
With Vietnam disregarding Khmer Krom human rights while Cambodia behaves complicity, Sok said that he would go to any other country that would legally allow him to work. But Sok added he would prefer to go back to his birthplace in southern Vietnam, which he considers his home.
“If Cambodia and Vietnam both respected and provided everything to us, I would decide to live in my homeland in Vietnam. Kampuchea Krom is our homeland, so I would decide to go back to live there.”
Additional reporting by Lieng Sarith.
The Embassy of Vietnam in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment.
* Name has been changed to protect identity.