Cambodian leaders visit Khmer Krom pagodas, but residents say they face government restrictions in practicing their culture.
Tra Vinh province, Vietnam
MINISTER of Information Khieu Kanharith led a delegation of government officials on a visit this past weekend to Vietnam's Tra Vinh province, home to large numbers of ethnic Khmer residents, to celebrate the start of the Pchum Ben festival.
Ethnic Khmer in Vietnam, known collectively as Khmer Krom, have at times reported persecution by the Vietnamese population. The visit of the Cambodian delegation, joined by Vietnamese government officials, was designed to showcase good relations between Cambodia, the Khmer Krom and Vietnam, officials said.
"The Communist Party of Vietnam and I appreciate the Khmer people [living in Vietnam] as the countries of Cambodia and Vietnam continue to improve their relationship," said Soeng Song San, a Khmer Krom who is deputy chairman of Vietnam's Central Communist Party in charge of affairs in the west and south.
Khieu Kanharith echoed the remarks from Soeng Song San, noting that King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen have always encouraged good relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. As part of the visit, Khieu Kanharith and the rest of the delegation visited four pagodas patronised by Khmer Krom.
"We are happy to see that our people here are able to preserve their Khmer identity. Cambodian officials will continue to visit in order to link the culture of Khmer people here and Khmer people in Cambodia to have a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood," he said.
Despite the dignitaries' warm words, alleged instances of Vietnamese discrimination against the Khmer Krom have given rights groups cause for concern in recent years.
This trip will not be of much importance ... because it's an official visit.
In addition to being ethnically distinct from the Vietnamese, Khmer Krom practice Theravada Buddhism, in contrast to the Mahayana tradition that is more prevalent in Vietnam. According to a report released in May of this year by the United States Commission on International Religious
Freedom, Khmer Krom have faced Vietnamese government restrictions on their religious festivals, with five Khmer Krom monks receiving prison sentences for protesting those restrictions in 2007.
In July of this year, Khmer Krom monk and activist Tim Sakhorn flew to Sweden, where he was granted political asylum after having been arrested and jailed by Vietnamese authorities in 2007 on charges of illegally crossing the border between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Although none were willing to speak on the record, Khmer Krom residents of Tra Vinh province said they faced difficulty in starting their own businesses, and that Khmer language study was discouraged except within pagodas.
Ang Chanrith, the executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organisation, said that though he appreciated the effort of Khieu Kanharith and others to visit the Khmer Krom, he doubted that the trip would do much to improve their situation, as the community struggles with land disputes and discrimination.
"This trip will not be of much importance for Khmer Krom people there because it's an official visit to Kampuchea Krom led by Vietnamese authorities," he said. "The Vietnamese will take [Khieu Kanharith] only to places where there are no disputes between Khmer Krom and Vietnamese."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O'TOOLE IN PHNOM PENH