​Down a River of Terror | Phnom Penh Post

Down a River of Terror


Publication date
09 April 1993 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Ker Munthit

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A ragged flotilla of more than 40 craft crowded with Vietnamese families fleeing

the Khmer Rouge's campaign of terror was backed up along the Bassac river on Mar

30 as police checked their residency permits off Noreay Island.

The Vietnamese had been subjected to this procedure all along the Tonle Sap, often

paying up to 3,000 riels to the police in order to pass one check-point.

Forty-two-year-old Hoy Yang Linh looked pale as he sat aboard his 30 foot-long houseboat,

sparely equipped with a car battery- powered radio and small gas cooker. He is one

of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge attack on Phum Chong Kneas (Siem Reap) in which

he lost his left arm and nearly all his possessions including two fishing boats which

were stolen.

Linh left five of his children with relatives in Kompong Loung and travelled on his

uncle's boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh .

"I went up to the video-boat to buy cigarettes about an hour before the shooting.

I was chatting with my friends when the Khmer Rouge soldiers came up," he said.

"I didn't know who they were because they were dressed just like us. They all

had white scarves around their necks. And then they suddenly started shooting.

"Now I don't know where we are going. We just follow everybody," he said

turning to face to his wife and his two-year-old baby.

Touch Heap, 43, is a Khmer who is married to a Vietnamese woman and has six children.

He owns a big boat which was towing 15 other craft from the fishing village of Chhnok

Trou and other villages in Siem Reap.

Heap witnessed the Khmer Rouge attack on the village where eight ethnic Vietnamese

were killed. He said he was awoken at about 2 o'clock in the morning by shooting

on the two boats next to his and a shout of "Eh Yuon! I've killed you a lot

already and you still don't want to leave."

He said he saw the attackers pull three men out of a boat and shoot them dead. The

victims were his friends.

Heap said he was unsure where he will go because he does not have any relatives in

Vietnam. "Everybody prefers to stay here, but due to the circumstances we have

to leave," he said.

Pham Nguen Thanh, 58, entered the conversation. "Better to live here because

life is good for all. [In Vietnam], it is very difficult to make a living."

Unlike other Vietnamese fishermen and women, Heap has already registered to vote.

Now he is compelled to depart his homeland because the Khmer Rouge are hunting his

wife. She was denied a voting card by party agents who proved she is Vietnamese.

Despair marked Heap's face when asked if he will enter a ballot during the election.

"I'm afraid for my family, especially my wife and my kids. If we don't leave

they'll come and kill us all," he said.

He could not offer any explanation as to why the Khmer Rouge would kill his friends.

"We are just normal people. Our job is to jump into water early in the morning

and come up before dark," he added.

More Vietnamese jumped on the boat to join in the conversation. They expressed critical

views towards SOC soldiers and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia

(UNTAC)in whom they had high hopes.

"UNTAC came after the shooting to take pictures. Hun Sen's soldiers appear during

the day, at night they sleep. What can they do to stop the Khmer Rouge?" Heap's

wife asked.

Like the Khmer population, the Vietnamese had believed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, president

of the Supreme National Council (SNC), was the one figure who could have helped them.

"We were very happy when we heard that Prince Sihanouk was coming to reconstruct

and reconcile the country," Heap said.

Following the spate of the killings Sihanouk issued a statement from Beijing in which

he solemnly condemned these acts against humanity. The prince, however, also called

on the Vietnamese to leave Cambodia for the sake of their safety because UNTAC and

SOC are powerless to defend them.

"Anti-Vietnamese hatred is such that the only reasonable alternative, I repeat

the only reasonable and safe alternative left to them, is to leave Cambodia straight

away and go and live in Vietnam," he said. Opposition parties that have so far

benefited from the issue of Vietnamese presence in Cambodia still claim they stand

for human rights.

The Vietnamese settlers consider their decision to flee Cambodia as a last resort.

Many fear a repetition of the pogroms practiced by the Lon Nol government in 1970.

Vietnamese residents in the Cambodian capital are facing the same threat. "I'm

leaving for Vietnam tomorrow. I'm afraid when I see a lot of boats coming from the

lake," said 30-year-old Vinh Thi Na who resides on the Bassac river bank next

to the Cambodiana Hotel.

She and her husband and their five children have been living in Cambodia for seven

years. She said that recently her life was threatened by Khmers who told her that,

"If you don't go you will be killed. Don't you hear anything?"

On the night of Mar. 29, four hand-grenades simultaneously exploded in Vietnamese-run

cafes and brothels in Phnom Penh, leaving two people dead and 27 wounded.

"The targets were very precise," UNTAC spokesman Eric Falt said adding,

"These attacks were aimed at causing fear and panic within the Vietnamese community."

SOC has accused its opponents of conducting terrorist acts in an attempt to disrupt

the election.

In the aftermath of the massacres of Vietnamese settlers a debate has been going

on as to who is responsible for taking care of the movement of the Vietnamese boat


The SOC police at the Noreay Island check-point reported 245 boats with 627 persons

aboard had passed through between Mar. 29-30. When asked whether any security measures

will be taken, they replied: "No, it is beyond our duty."

"We can not protect these people. Our duty is to get them to inform us while

they are crossing here. Then we will make a report to the ministry," said Oun

Sok Eng, head of the checkpoint team.

An estimated five per cent of the Vietnamese fleeing the massacres hold Cambodian

identity and voter registration cards.

At the border, a SOC police officer said Vietnamese officials had told him they would

send back any of the refugees who possessed the cards.

"The Vietnamese police officer informed me that they consider any Vietnamese

with voter registration cards as Cambodian and would forcibly return them,"

Eun Nara said.

The SOC government has expressed concern over the departure of ethnic Vietnamese,

many of whom are skilled tradesmen, saying that it will affect the country's economy.

But to avoid being blamed by opposition parties of being pro-Vietnamese, it has reacted

cautiously to the situation.

"If they can not stay they are free to go. We will provide as much security

as we can," said Khieu Kanharith, the SOC spokesman. "Some boats are staying

near Phnom Penh to see what happens in the election. If the Phnom Penh [regime] wins

they'll come back, but if it loses they'll go," he added.

The government of Vietnam has expressed outrage at the massacres and said SOC and

UNTAC have a moral and legal obligation to defend the Vietnamese minority.

It blamed UNTAC and the existing administrative structures for their lack of responsibility

in dealing with the Khmer Rouge.

"Eluding the obligation is a direct encouragement for the Khmer Rouge to commit

further acts of massacre and terrorism against Vietnamese residents in Cambodia,"

said a statement released by Vietnam's foreign ministry on Mar. 27.

As stipulated in the Paris peace accords UNTAC is supposed to establish a neutral

environment for the Cambodia's general, free and fair election. UNTAC officials have

been thwarted in their attempt to strictly enforce the accord by inadequate cooperation

from Cambodia's rival factions that form the SNC. The issue of Vietnamese presence

has been used as a pretext to disrupt the peace process.

"Don't turn around the responsibility. It seems to be the will of Cambodians

for the Vietnamese to leave," Falt told a press briefing. "We are here

to conduct peace and electoral process, but this stretches the United Nations,"

Falt said. "Cambodians seem to be enjoying it when the Vietnamese leave,"

he added.

Hundreds of fishing boats carrying thousands of people were reportedly heading for

the border in the week following the Kompong Chhnang massacre.

"We are watching this movement of population with considerable concern,"

said Falt.

According to the spokesman's sources, more than 300 boats with nearly 2,000 people

were seen to have crossed U.N. border check-points into Vietnam's territory from

Mar. 25-30. Many women and children have come by road from Tonle Sap to Phnom Penh.

UNTAC has increased armed patrols to monitor the mass movement of the people on the

Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers. The armed-naval units backed up by UNTAC CivPol

on shore and by air-reconnaissance were assigned to deter extortion and were given

the right to return fire if the people were attacked.

"It's very complicated what is happening. We are doing everything within the

mandate to give as much protection as possible," Falt said.

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