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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Down and Out on the Border

Down and Out on the Border

CHREY THOM (CV3-B) - On the bank of the Bassac river at Chrey Thom, the new silver,

red and blue Cambodian flag flutters briskly on the speed of the monsoon winds. Across

the river at Long Bin the Vietnamese flag, which served as the model for the State

of Cambodia banner flaps in the same breeze. Two flags, two sovereign nations, divided

by a river-nothing apparently could be clearer. But down on the water front, the

issue of national identity is a little more confusing.

Hundreds of Vietnamese fishing boats, some which have been waiting for as long as

two months have been lined up along the bank waiting for the green light to move

into Cambodia.

"Here, five or six days ago we were told that we would be allowed to enter (Cambodia)

after having our identity cards reviewed," said 34-year-old Vinh Thy Deung who

has been moored on the Chrey Thom shore eight weeks.

Over the last month, the number of the boats has swollen from 480 to more than 800,

according to UNTAC and government border control officials.

These fishing villagers claim to be former residents who fled the Tonle Sap lake

after the attack on the ethnic Vietnamese community in March.

Deung said her family had lived in Cambodia for 12 years and was among those attacked

by the Khmer Rouge at Chong Kneas in Siem Reap province. She said one of her two

daughters was killed in the massacre and, to back up her claims, displayed a wound

in her upper right leg and her residency permit which was well worn inside a plastic


"We returned from Vietnam two months ago. They (Vietnamese authorities) allowed

us to live there, but we were not given land or offered jobs," Deung said.

Like most of the Vietnamese, Deung's decision to come back was a difficult one but

she now lives in hope that her family will be permitted to resettle in Cambodia soon.

"Since leaving Siem Reap we've had no work and our savings have dwindled,"

she said.

When asked if they were not afraid of the Khmer Rouge, Deung's mother Do Thy Heung,

54, said "Yes, we are afraid a little bit, but the Cambodians will help protect


"In Vietnam and here we do nothing, no job...Back in Siem Reap, though we don't

have money to start our own business, we can still be hired or we can work for the

fishing lot," Heung said.

A source close to the issue said the fishing families were stripped of their identity

papers when they fled to Vietnam at the height of the massacres although the documents

have since been returned to them. The official went on to comment that these people

should be allowed to return because they are former residents who have lived in Cambodia

for generations. He expressed concern over the fate of the refugees who have started

selling property to buy food and described their condition as critical. UNTAC dispatched

a medical team to survey the health and food needs of the boat people but many said

they had not been visited.

"They (Vietnamese) got stopped and are not in very good shape. A lot of kids

have malnutrition and no medical team helps them. They need assistance. But, they

still have no guarantee once they come back," the source said.

"UNTAC is taking the lead of WFP and UNHCR in this issue. [UNTAC] border control

team keeps reporting, but no measures have been taken so far," he complained.

The entry ban being enforced by the Cambodian border authorities applies to all vessels

except for cargo boats-and those with money.

"About two weeks ago a policeman and a civilian came up to my boat. They asked

for three chi for each boat, so they would help us reach Phnom Penh, by crossing

at Bak Dai. This entry (Chrey Thom) is heavily patrolled," Heung explained.

"Those who paid have gone through. As for us, what can we offer them (police)

if sometimes we run short of rice. Once we came down this way, we must go back on

the same way. That's why we are waiting here until the government allows us to go,"

she said.

Local residents said in one recent week alone at least 70 Vietnamese fishing boats

have illegally sneaked into Cambodia under cover of dark using the Bak Dai water

way which by-passes the main checkpoint and leads the boats to the upper part of

the Bassac river. According to the locals, the Vietnamese were offered guidance to

enter Cambodia if they agree to pay for service from 3-4 chi of gold (US. $130-180)

for each boat.

UNTAC officials at the border said they were unaware of the backdoor route. "Technically,

they have not entered Cambodia unless they have crossed the checkpoint at Chrey Thom,"

said Michael Fitzgerald, UNTAC's Border Control officer.

"We know boats have got through, but not exactly which way. Yesterday (August

2) we spent six hours patrolling, but didn't see any boats. Recently, there's been

no report of people taking bribes," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Roeun Nara, a government border police officer, said he had not

received any directives from his superiors in Phnom Penh on what to do and stated

that the main task of his unit was to monitor the movement of the boats in the area,

examine identity papers and record the number of people who intend to return to Cambodia.

"Some do not have identity papers, but some do. They want to come back because

there in Vietnam they cannot find any work. We listed those who want to return, but

we have yet to make a decision on whether they will be allowed to enter or not,"

he said.

He confirmed the illegal passage of the fishing boats, but denied any involvement

by border police. He blamed an unspecified armed group which is making money from

the boat people.



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