Monks, Khmer Krom activists gather to urge the government not to halt future demonstrations
AROUND 600 monks, opposition politicians and rights activists gathered in Phnom Penh on Thursday to mark the loss of Cambodia's southern territories - Kampuchea Krom - to Vietnam.
The rally at Wat Botum park celebrating the 60th anniversary of the handover of Kampuchea Krom also aimed to draw attention to the human rights abuses still reportedly suffered by southern Vietnam's ethnic Khmer residents, known locally as Khmer Krom.
"We are in sorrow. This date represents all our suffering since 1949, when we lost our land to Vietnam. Our rally today sends a message to the young generation of Khmer Krom to remember our sufferings and sacrifices," said Young Sin, chief of the Khmer Krom monks from Phnom Penh's Sammaki Raingsei pagoda.
The annual gathering marks June 4, 1949, when an ailing French colonial administration transferred Cambodia's old Mekong Delta territories to its colony of Cochinchina, a precursor to today's Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
It is a loss that is still keenly felt by many Cambodians, compounded by reports of human rights violations against Khmer Krom monks.
A Human Rights Watch report released in January decried the "severe and often shrouded methods" used by the Vietnamese government to stifle demands for religious and cultural freedom.
We are in sorrow. This date represents all our suffering since 1949.
In a statement released Thursday, Son Soubert, president of the Permanent Committee of the Son Sann Foundation, said the anniversary was an important opportunity "to assert the Cambodian rights on this territory and to defend the rights of Khmer Krom living there".
Pich Seiha, 28, a Khmer Krom monk present at the rally, said he joined the protest to call attention to the situation in Vietnam.
"I joined the rally because I want the national government, as well as the international community, to bring us freedom to live our lives, to do the same work as Vietnamese citizens and the rights to make our own decisions," he said.
But participants claim a last-minute change of venue led to a lower turnout than expected.
On May 28, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema approved the rally to be held at Chaktomuk Theatre, but it was relocated overnight to Wat Botum park.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay expressed hopes that in the future the government would be more supportive of the rally.
"We hope that the government will give up its policy against commemorations of Khmer history [and that it] will not restrict or prohibit us from forming a rally," he said.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Post on Wednesday that the gathering of Cambodia's Khmer Krom community would not affect the relationship between Cambodia and its former political patron Vietnam.
"I think that the assembly... is an expression of their freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the government," he said.