Save for a handful of years, 63-year-old Sok Chea has lived in Cambodia her entire life. Four of her children and more than a dozen grandchildren reside in the same village, while nearly all of her remaining family live not much farther afield. A Kampong Cham native, Chea is the picture of Khmer national pride and identity with a single exception: ethnically, she is Vietnamese.
Despite her birthplace, her Khmer fluency and her Cambodian name, that reality of her background has impeded Chea and her family time and time again. During the Khmer Rouge regime, she was one of an estimated 150,000 to be forced from her homeland into Vietnam – a country with which, though she can speak the language, she had little familiarity. When she returned after the Khmer Rouge fell, a lack of documents meant she and her family were serial squatters.
Respect for her rights as a citizen have been patchy. When Chea lived in Russey Keo district’s Chroy Changvar, she was allowed to vote. Since being evicted six years ago and relocating to a floating village in Kandal province’s Lvea Em, she has been blocked from the voter list.
Crouched at the edge of the slight wooden home she shares with her son and his family, Chea rinses and cleans the day’s catch of trey riel as she speaks.
“My parents also lived here, though they died when I was very young. They always said that living in Cambodia is better,” she says. In the houses to the right and left, grandchildren ranging from toddlers to teens chatter in Khmer and Vietnamese.
“I had to move to Vietnam when the Khmer Rouge came, but I came back as soon as they left. I couldn’t stay there,” Chea continues. “I am Cambodian.”
There is arguably no geopolitical relationship held by Cambodia as complex as the one it has with Vietnam. The effect of that on an ordinary ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia remains significant. While an estimated five per cent of the population is ethnically Vietnamese, according to the American Central Intelligence Agency, many live in a state of limbo, possessing only some of the required documents for citizenship, recognised more often as immigrants. Under Vietnamese law, meanwhile, ethnic Vietnamese Cambodians are unlikely to be considered citizens.
The lack of legal clarity has left some of the population at high risk of statelessness, argues a new report – one of the few comprehensive pieces of research into the subject.
Written by civil party lawyer Lyma Nguyen and Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee adviser Christoph Sperfledt, the 163-page report released late last month draws on in-depth surveys of ethnic Vietnamese in Kampong Cham conducted over four years, assessing their citizenship status by drawing on nearly a century of Vietnamese and Cambodian law.
Though the report focuses on a single group, the challenges echo those of a population writ large.
Like Sok Chea, “all respondents across the three research projects indicated that they were born in Cambodia”, but despite that, many have been kept at arms length from their countrymen.
“Each of these ethnic Vietnamese villages experienced similar stories of discrimination and violence before, during and after the Khmer Rouge period,” notes the report, which was published by the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese fled across the border during the Lon Nol regime, driven by a wave of violent persecution. By the time the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975, the population was estimated to be 150,000. Nearly all of them were forced to leave during the first six months of the regime, while “many of those expelled were massacred on their way to Vietnam”.
An estimated 20,000 remained (largely spouses and relatives of ethnic Khmers). Every single one of those who remained, however, were “systematically killed”, according to a demographic report presented at the ECCC, the authors note.
When ethnic Vietnamese returned to Cambodia in the early 1980s – lacking documents that had disappeared during their forced exodus – most were registered as immigrants, and their citizenship status never resolved.
That lack of clarity intensified the situation during the UNTAC era of the 1990s, when, as the report notes: “opposition groups stepped up their rhetoric against these civilians, and the Khmer Rouge instigated a campaign of political violence against Vietnamese civilians”.
At points, the violence was so brutal the UN termed it an “ethnic cleansing”. Years later, the overt racism may have dissipated, but the challenges remain.
The report notes that without papers – formal employment, property ownership, bank access political participation and judicial recourse is all but closed. And while, among the focus group, the “preferred scenario would be to access Cambodian nationality”, for decades now, there has been no concerted effort to ensure it.
“There is an urgent need to examine options for reducing and preventing statelessness among this minority group, including facilitating access to nationality and other documentation, such as birth certificates,” argue the authors, before offering a number of recommendations, including expanding universal birth registration and interpreting current laws in accordance with international rights conventions.
Despite the difficulties for ethnic Vietnamese, however, there is little that pushes them from their homeland.
“My family has lived here for a long, long time,” says Chea.
“I am more happy here than anywhere else. I consider myself Cambodian, and I’m happy to be Cambodian.”