The Vietnamese Association in Cambodia (VAC) has received permission to expand into
18 provinces and municipalities to teach ethnic Vietnamese about Cambodian culture
and law. It already has one office in Phnom Penh.
Sum Chi, president of VAC, said the association wants to reduce the violence that
has long marred relations between ethnic Vietnamese and Cambodians. Gruesome massacres
of ethnic Vietnamese were carried out by the Khmer Rouge and, in recent years, mob
killings have claimed the lives of several ethnic Vietnamese, including four people
beaten to death in 1998.
Politics has also entered into the equation. In the latest national election, a mob
of Sam Rainsy supporters prevented Vietnamese voters from casting ballots in Kandal
province and confiscated their identification cards.
"I think that when ethnic Vietnamese understand about Cambodian culture and
the law that will help reduce the violence which has always existed between Cambodians
and Vietnamese," Chi said. "Our association does not serve a political
interest. We are neutral, the same as any other association working in the country."
Chi said his association had been registered with local authorities for several years.
It was cleared by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) for national expansion earlier this
year. Chi also claims that VAC serves a humanitarian function by helping both Vietnamese
and Khmer suffering from natural disasters.
And Chi has seen encouraging signs for ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia.
"We see now that Vietnamese can participate in traditional Khmer festivals such
as Khmer New Year, Water Festival and Pchum Ben," he said.
The decision to give VAC approval to open offices in the provinces was granted by
co-Ministers of Interior Sar Kheng and You Hockry on April 24.
VAC plans to set up offices in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang,
Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Kampong Speu, Siem Reap, Kratie, Svay Rieng, Prey Veng,
Kandal, Kampot, Koh Kong, Takeo, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Sihanoukville.
However, Chi said that VAC lacked the budget to extend its offices to these areas
right away. Most Vietnamese still live in areas outside the organization's reach.
Although a national census was conducted in 1998, official statistics about the number
of Vietnamese in Cambodia were not released. Political parties such as the Sam Rainsy
Party claim as many as 1 million ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia, but the government
insists there are only about 100,000.
Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party have long accused ethnic Vietnamese of supporting
the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Politicians have linked them with the
1979 Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia.
Nouhen Prum Virak, secretary general of the Student Movement for Democracy (SMD)
said he estimates at least two million illegal Vietnamese immigrants live in Cambodia,
although no evidence exists to substantiate that claim.
Virak said that he was concerned that illegal Vietnamese immigrants were being used
to claim more territory from Cambodia. He said Vietnamese political influence still
exists under Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"I think that the majority of Vietnamese live illegally in Cambodia," said
Virak. "If Vietnamese enter Cambodian as illegals they have no rights to form
the association. If members of the association are illegal immigrants, it means VAC
violates the law."
But Nhek Sarin, executive director for local NGO Star Kampuchea, said associations
and NGOs could operate legally simply by registering with the MoI.
He said a new draft law on certifying local associations and NGOs had not yet been
approved since it was a low priority of the government.
He said Article 3 of the draft law states that locally based associations should
be created by a group of "neutral persons" who are Cambodian citizens.
He said that if foreigners living in Cambodia wanted to form an association, they
must include Cambodian citizens.