A Vietnamese floating community, cut adrift by Phnom Penh authorities,
drift down the Tonle Sap
ANDAL - In the Bassac River town of Chrey Thom on the border of Vietnam, approximately
200 residents of the former floating village of Phnom Penh's Meanchey District contemplate
their last hours as residents of Cambodia.
Under the watchful gaze of immigration officials from both sides of the border, the
final act of Phnom Penh Mayor Chea Sophara's drive to evict the villagers from their
former home near the Monivong Bridge is about to unfold.
"This will be our last night here," Dang Sambo said of the stretch of grassy
riverbank across from Chrey Thom village to which he and approximately 200 other
of his neighbors and relatives have moored their houseboats since their forcible
eviction from Phnom Penh on Oct 23. "The [Cambodian] immigration police have
told us that we must continue down river into Vietnam tomorrow, or they will cut
our lines and force us to leave."
The imminent deportation of Sambo and his fellow floating villagers is the climax
of several days of what they describe as "savage" treatment they experienced
during their journey down the Bassac from Phnom Penh.
"Wherever we stopped along the way, people would demand between 5000-10,000
riels from us," Sambo said. "In the morning, they'd cut our [mooring] lines
and force us to leave."
Sambo, a father of five who worked as a construction worker in Phnom Penh before
his eviction, claims to bear no malice towards the Phnom Penh government for his
predicament, instead alluding darkly to "people behind the scenes" for
his eviction. "Let me say this straight - the Sam Rainsy Party must be behind
this [because] they hate Vietnamese people".
Chea Sophara dismissed allegations of racism motivating the evictions, describing
them as a "benefit" to the relations between Vietnam and Cambodia. "On
the contrary, [the evictions] will help to strengthen the friendship and solidarity
between Cambodia and Vietnam," Sophara told the Post. "[The evictions symbolize
that] that we are honest with each other [about our mutual problems]."
The prospect of beginning a new life in Vietnam provides little comfort for Sambo
and his ethnic Vietnamese neighbors.
"I'm scared of Cambodia, scared of this word yuon, but I still don't want to
leave," he explained. "I'm half-Khmer, not pure, but I was born in Cambodia,
my parents lived in Cambodia before [King] Sihanouk's reign...we're not Vietnamese
[citizens], we're Cambodians,"
Nonsense, says Sophara. "Those people in Meanchey District were relative newcomers
to Phnom Penh," he insisted.
According to Sambo, proof of their Cambodian citizenship and residence rights were
stripped from them by police officials in the days prior to their eviction.
"We had to surrender our family books and identification documents to police,,"
Sambo said. "They made us pay 6000 riels and said we'd receive new documents,
but we never saw our documents again."
Sambo's pleas of Cambodian residency are rejected outright by Phnom Penh Mayor Chea
Sophara. "Those people held fake documents and police investigated their residency
carefully and properly before removing them,"
Sophara says that the eviction of the Meanchey floating villagers is just the first
phase in a comprehensive crackdown on illegal aliens in Phnom Penh, starting with
"We're going to carefully target illegals living in Phnom Penh section by section,"
he said. "We'll identify [the illegals] person by person, family by family through
their documentation...if they're legal they can stay, if not they'll be sent back
to their own country."
Although Sophara described the eviction as a "good first step" in "educating"
Vietnamese to not see Cambodia as a country in which they can reside illegally, his
hopes that Phnom Penh has seen the last of Sambo and his fellow floating villagers
could be short-lived.
Although lacking identity documents of any kind, Sambo claims to have already crossed
and recrossed the border with Vietnam several times without incident, and expects
to one day return to live in Cambodia.
"I don't have any relatives [in Vietnam], I don't know that place," Sambo
said plaintively. "Cambodia is my home."