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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer Krom: Time to talk of the "hidden problem" of ethnic minorities

Khmer Krom: Time to talk of the "hidden problem" of ethnic minorities

Cambodians living in the south of Vietnam think now is the time to talk about

their grievances with Hanoi and Phnom Penh, and peacefully solve them.
Matthew Grainger reports.

P HNOM PENH and Hanoi would rather

keep it low-key, but prominent Khmer Krom are now saying that their peoples'

grievances must be faced.

Khmer Krom - ethnic Cambodians living in the

south of Vietnam - claim they have been subject to three hundred years of

persecution by the Vietnamese.

Now, they say, is the time to talk -

peacefully - about the flash points that are still being largely ignored in the

interest of regional stability.

Similar flash points - land and border

disputes, and the identity of nation, culture, society and religion - have

erupted violently in places such as Bosnia.

The reference to Bosnia is

neither glib nor random. The Khmer Krom, the people of Kampuchea Krom, can look

half a world away to Europe and draw parallels to their own

situation.

"The major problem at the present time is that the Kampuchea

Krom issue could be exploited... we don't want Kampuchea Krom to become the

Bosnia of Asia," said Thach Bunroeun, a Khmer Krom, founder of the Preah

Sihanouk Raj Academy.

BLDP leader Son Sann, a key figure among the Khmer

Krom, said: "I hope that if Vietnam wants peace in their country, and good

relations with Cambodia, they will give the Khmer Krom status as a minority, and

not continue to persecute them... I ask the international community, and all

organizations, to protect the human rights and to look at the fate of Cambodians

in south Vietnam. They suffer very much from the Vietnamese."

Estimates

of the Khmer Krom population range drastically from between less than one

million to seven million. Before French colonialization, Vietnam had gained

control of about 100,000 square kilometers of land that was formerly part of

Cambodia.

Khmer Krom want recognition of their plight and their

sovereignty, and want that achieved peacefully. However, says one prominent

Khmer Krom: "There have to be changes for the people to be happy... I hope it

can be done with dignity and peace and respect for sovereignty and human

rights."

Ambassador Extraordinary at the Royal Embassy, Truong Mealy -

stressing he was commenting only as a private citizen - said: "Geographically,

politically, diplomatically we want to retain the peaceful status quo, but among

neutral intellectuals (of both countries) this (issue) should now be

discussed."

"With cool heads, there will never be a better time to talk,"

Mealy said, adding that during this "transitional period", coming up to the

Royal government's second year anniversary, a more stable and relatively

peaceful region was apparent.

Mealy said: "If we wait we will never find

time to talk. Truth will prevail and it is better than adopting an ostrich

policy... we should be able to speak about this 'hidden story'... Our Vietnamese

friends in some ways feel uncomfortable talking about this, but we are not after

trouble or anything that would hurt the relationship between the two

countries."

"There are people with vested interests who try to exploit

all the differences (between ethnic Khmers and Vietnamese)," Mealy

said.

Another Khmer Krom said that no-one wanted violence "but there are

still extremists, and remember Pol Pot is still around and can still be strong.

People cannot be suppressed for too long... Ghandi was a British creation,

Mandela was a white South African creation. Vietnam would not want to see any

sort of uprising in Kampuchea Krom, it would scare off the investors they need

so badly."

Khmer Krom claim their sovereignty and rights have been

buffeted and traded by "colonialists", and other Asian neighbors.

They

say Malaysia and Indonesia, and superpowers like France and the United States,

have at various times agreed with Vietnamese wishes - including Vietnam's claims

to land that was formerly part of Cambodia - to ensure a "contented" yet

belligerent buffer against expansionist China.

Every Khmer Krom can

recite the history of the land, back to Cambodian King Chey Chetha II in 1620,

who granted the wishes of his royal Vietnamese wife to allow Vietnamese refugees

into the Khmer town of Prey Nokor - eventually renamed Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh

city.

Later Khmer demands that the land be returned failed; instead came

the Vietnamese phenomenon of Nam Tien (southward movement), which was halted by

the French in 1859.

The wounds are deep: the Khmer Krom say the French

promised that CochinChina would be returned to Cambodia. However, they say the

French later illegally ceded the land to Vietnamese King Bao Dai to encourage

opposition to Ho Chi Minh.

The Khmer Krom have had a past history of

resistance; the FLKK (Front de Lutte de Kampuchea Krom) joined other minorities

in working with the United States and South Vietnam to fight the Viet

Cong.

Cambodian Kings, including King Norodom Sihanouk, have in the past

asked that Kampuchea Krom be returned. However, that wish seems to be, if not

fading, at least now heavily under wraps. Khmer Krom spoken to by the Post all

denied that the return of the land was an issue.

"King Sihanouk recently

said 'that was the stupidity of Pol Pot trying to recapture Kampuchea Krom from

the Vietnamese... he ended up losing the entire Cambodia'," Bunroeun

said.

Kampuchea Krom was originally Lic Tuk, meaning below sea-level or

"the Netherlands of Cambodia". "It had its own unique matriarchal political and

social systems. Its economic system was based on the wet rice culture and

maritime trade. The internationally recognized Khmer town of O Keo - now in the

Vietnamese province of Rach Gia - was the Singapore of the region," Bunroeun

said. "Khmer Krom traded with Romans, Arabs, Japanese and

Chinese."

During the French occupation, Vietnamese were more readily

accepted into governing administrations because neither race - unlike the Khmer

- were indigenous. "The Vietnamese were seen as more shrewd, clever and not as

passive as the indigenous people," Bunroeun said. However, the French recognized

the Khmer Krom as Khmer.

Today, Khmer Krom are automatically Cambodian

citizens with full constitutional rights. However, despite Royal entreaties to

UNTAC at the time, Khmer Krom were not franchised during the May 1993 elections.

Even Son Sann was unable to vote.

Mealy said: "History is history, nobody

can alter, add or take anything from it. This sort of thing has happened

everywhere in the world, not just between Cambodia and Vietnam. We want to set

the record straight."

Years have taken a social toll, though the Khmer

have proved culturally and religiously resilient.

"Due to their heavy

tonation the Khmer Krom are called Vietnamese by Khmer Kandal (people from

central Cambodia). The Vietnamese call us tho, or savages. That is the pain of

the Khmer Krom," Bunroeun said.

Khmer Krom speak of a Vietnamese national

agenda, the "Vietnamization" of Kampuchea Krom. The Vietnamese also call the

Khmer Krom Nguoi Viet Goc Mien, or "Vietnamese of Khmer origin."

The

Khmer language is only taught in the pagoda - and as recently at the 1980s only

in secret, and under threat of persecution. Schooling is in Vietnamese,

therefore the written literacy of Khmer is poor, though Khmer is the peoples'

spoken language of choice.

Khmer Krom dress as Vietnamese, and carry

Vietnamese national identification cards.

Their living standards are said

to be among the lowest in Vietnam. "We have no way of living except selling our

land to the Vietnamese," said one.

They remain staunchly Khmer, most

pronounced during festivals and holidays. "They are more traditionally Khmer

than many Cambodians," Son Sann said. "They give reverence and pardon to the

work of the buffalo during New Year, something that doesn't happen in Cambodia

anymore," he smiles.

The historical "weapon" to assimilate a racial

minority - inter-marriage, and the subsequent and gradual "mixing" of blood and

culture - is impotent in this case. "It is very rare to find a Khmer marrying a

Vietnamese; it is just as uncommon to find a Khmer Krom marrying a Vietnamese,

except in the cities," said Bunroeun.

"The resilience of the Khmer Krom

is best described in the religion," said one prominient Khmer Krom.

"In

the 1800s the Vietnamese attempted to disrobe Khmer Hinayana Buddhist monks, to

follow the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist way," he said.

"There was much

oppression, Buddhist temples were turned into pig sties and monks forced into

manual labor. Buddhist leaders were imprisoned and executed, including the

famous Kim Tok Choeung."

King Sihanouk, said Bunroeun, is revered by the

Khmer Krom. "They feel that the existing survival and peace in Cambodia is their

last hope (to retain) their cultural and national identity. But the Khmer Krom

as a whole say that today, Son Sann is their leader," he said.

Son Sann

is held in such regard - though he firmly rejects the idea of his being the

Khmer Krom leader, saying there are other leaders living in Kampuchea Krom -

because of his grandfather, Oknha Son Kuy, who was martyred in 1841.

"My

grandfather opposed the Vietnamese invasion but he was defeated. The Vietnamese

wanted to change the Buddhist religion but he wouldn't accept that," Son Sann

said.

"The general who fought him said 'Do you accept being beheaded for

your religion', and my grandfather said yes. They had him

decapitated."

"But the Khmer people were allowed to keep the way they

worshipped. That is why everyone knows the story of Oknha Kuy, he was the savior

of the religion."

Son Sann's parents began building a stupa in a pagoda

to honor Oknha Kuy, but the Vietnamese never allowed the stupa to be finished.

Even now, according to Khmer Krom, worship at the site only brings persecution

from Vietnamese authorities.

Son Sann said in the 1960s the Vietnamese

offered to finish building the stupa, but Son Sann's mother, after considering

the offer, said only the family was allowed to finish it "and no

other."

"Both of our people (Khmer and Vietnamese) will live with each

other to the end of the earth," Bunroeun said, "therefore we should seek mutual

respect, understanding and peace."

"The best solution is to invite Son

Sann and his son Son Sobert to visit and finish building the ancient stupa. It

would mark the reconciliation between Vietnam and Cambodia," he said. "This

should be done while Son Sann is still alive."

"The stupa should be

inaugurated by King Sihanouk and (Vietnam communist party leader) Do Muoi, to

establish the beginning of a lasting friendship. It would be a healing process,"

Bunroeun said.

However, Son Sann said: "Now is not the right

time."

"People are still suffering, and are not happy. But I wish you to

talk about this with people living in Kampuchea Krom, not me. Some people accuse

me of being a racist because I opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.

But I am not a racist. I would like to preserve the identity of Cambodian people

and I know well the story of the Khmer Krom."

The completion of Oknha

Kuy's stupa would go some way to heal the racial rift between Kampuchea Krom and

Vietnam, but some Khmer Krom demands go considerably further.

"The best

solution is for Vietnam to allow and encourage the Khmer Krom to have a genuine

voice in local and central government and in the National Assembly in Hanoi,"

said one senior Khmer Krom, who asked not to be named.

"Social gatherings

and organizations should be encouraged - or at least not be persecuted - by

Hanoi; Khmer Krom should have their own radio station and press. Culturally,

Vietnam should allow Khmer Krom freedom of the arts, not government propaganda

but a genuine cultural heritage. It is most important for Vietnam to lift the

suppression of the Khmer Buddhist Sangha. Khmer language curriculum should be

included in schools."

"Most importantly, Hanoi must find a peaceful

solution with the Royal Cambodian government to solve all these problems,

including immigration, border issues and human rights."

"If Hanoi

continues to suppress the Khmer Krom they will push our people into a

corner."

Mealy, talking "from the heart", said however the issue of

ethnic minorities had to be tackled slowly and coolly, away from politics but

instead by intellectuals from "think tanks".

The first step should be the

taking of a census, under UN auspices, anonymous and free from reprisals, he

said.

"Vietnam tries to say there are less than one million (Cambodians

in southern Vietnam), but Cambodians living there say there are six or seven

million. We have to sort that out," he said.

Such a census would "of

course" also confirm the number of Vietnamese living in Cambodia, he

said.

"Everything should be put on the table and discussed fairly," he

said.

"We want to get away from the rancor and hatred, and we have to

draw a lesson from the suffering. The only good thing that comes from suffering

is that things can be learned."

Khmer Krom calls to discuss their

grievances away from the political forum are well-reasoned. The likelihood of

government initiatives - from either Phnom Penh or Hanoi - appears

dim.

Cambodia has recently set up a border issues committee - headed by

high-powered politicians and with its own budget under the Council of Ministers

- but the Post understands it will deal only with Thai disputes, not those with

Vietnam.

A Vietnamese delegation recently met in Phnom Penh to discuss

border problems with the Cambodians - but though some very general points of

action emerged, it is understood the officials did little more than agree to

disagree.

A Vietnamese embassy spokesman said that now was "not the right

time to talk about it" because of the on-going discussions between the two

working groups - the same two that met in Phnom Penh.

However, while the

Vietnamese diplomatic spokesman said "settlement is progressing, but it will

take time", he also confirmed that the groups were not talking about Khmer Krom.

"(The parties) are talking only about Vietnamese in Cambodia," he said.

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