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
"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."
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
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
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
"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
"There are people with vested interests who try to exploit
all the differences (between ethnic Khmers and Vietnamese)," Mealy
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
Khmer Krom claim their sovereignty and rights have been
buffeted and traded by "colonialists", and other Asian neighbors.
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
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
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
"The general who fought him said 'Do you accept being beheaded for
your religion', and my grandfather said yes. They had him
"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
"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,"
However, Son Sann said: "Now is not the right
"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.
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.
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."
continues to suppress the Khmer Krom they will push our people into a
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
"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
"Everything should be put on the table and discussed fairly," he
"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
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
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
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.