KHMER Krom advocacy groups have called on authorities in Vietnam to release ethnic Khmers being held in Vietnamese jails and to relax cultural and religious restrictions ahead of next week’s Khmer New Year holiday.
Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Krom Association, said that on the occasion of the annual holiday, which begins April 14, Vietnam should loosen government controls and respect the rights of the country’s ethnic Khmer minority.
“I asked for the Vietnamese government to provide freedom and release Khmer Kampuchea Krom who have been arrested and jailed due to land disputes and attempts to preserve their religion and culture,” he said.
Thach Setha said that “hundreds” of Khmer Krom are languishing in prison on political charges after advocating for the use of the Khmer language and the right to practise Theravada Buddhism, which differs from the Mahayana Buddhism practised by the ethnic Vietnamese majority.
A Human Rights Watch report released in January 2009 documented the “severe and often shrouded methods used by the Vietnamese authorities to stifle dissent” among the country’s ethnic Khmer minority, particularly “ethnic-based grievances” and demands for religious freedom.
“Wary about the possible nationalist aspirations of the Khmer Krom, the Vietnamese government is quick to suppress peaceful expressions of dissent,” the report stated, noting that the government prohibits most peaceful protests and bans the formation of independent human rights groups.
In a meeting in the Mekong Delta on Tuesday, President Nguyen Minh Triet said the Khmer minority was an inseparable part of the Vietnamese nation, and had contributed to Vietnam’s economic development despite the great difficulties stemming from previous wars, according to a state-run media report.
The report also quoted the president as saying that the Communist Party of Vietnam always “made efforts to stabilise the economy and consolidate national solidarity in order to support and improve the lives of ethnic groups including theKhmer ethnic minority”.
However, Thach Sung, a representative of a group 22 Khmer Krom asylum seekers deported from Thailand in December, said that he did not believe that the Vietnamese authorities had done anything to improve the lives of ethnic minorities in the country, especially the Khmer.
“The Vietnamese government always tells the international community that they always pay attention to improving the lives of ethnic groups in their country, but it is not true,” he said.
“They consider Khmer Krom as animals and then tortured us when we demand freedom.”
Ny Chakrya, a senior investigator for local rights group Adhoc, said that the Khmer Krom should be able to live “with the same peace and freedom” as ethnic Vietnamese living inside Cambodia.