VENG Yeung Ho, 56, was born in Kompang Chhnang. His parents were born - and
buried - there. But the Cambodian government is not convinced he is a
"I don't know what to say. I am Cambodian," he protests. "I was
born there, I have children in Phnom Penh and Kompong Chhnang."
problem is that his ancestors were Vietnamese, though his family have lived in
Cambodia for generations.
Since fleeing Kompong Chhnang after a Khmer
Rouge massacre of Vietnamese-Khmers - including two of his children - in 1993,
he has become a country-less citizen.
He is one of 3705 such boatpeople,
at last count, living at a floating refugee village on the Basaac River at Chrey
Thom, just inside Vietnam territory.
The Cambodian government, concerned
about an influx of new Vietnamese immigrants, is preventing their return. The
Vietnam government says they can stay in that country, but provides no food aid
or resettlement assistance.
The refugees, living in more than 1200 boats
just a few hundred meters from the southern Cambodian border, want to return to
their former villages.
"I could not stay in Vietnam because I have no
family or land here," says Chreung Yeung Ng, 65. "My relatives are in
"We have no land, no jobs, no food," says Thay Seung, 41, who
despite having two children killed by the KR believes Cambodia is her only
"We know very well about the Khmer Rouge - they don't like us so
much. They think we are Vietnamese. Of course we look like Vietnamese but we are
In the meantime, the boatpeople wait. They survive on
regular rice and medicine supplies from United Nations agencies and Cambodian
It is not always enough. Ng says he knew 20 to 30 people who had
died from "fever or diarrhea" in the past two years at Chrey Thom. Sometimes the
nearest Vietnamese hospitals accepted boatpeople as patients; sometimes they did
"The Vietnam government does not provide rice or medicine because
they say we come from Cambodia. We are supposed to be Cambodian citizens," he
The boatpeople come from Cambodian towns such as Chhnuk Tru, on a
small lake in Kompong Chhnang which feeds into the Tonle Sap Lake.
fled south to Chrey Thom - encouraged, they say, by United Nations personnel who
told them they would be safe there - after Khmer Rouge massacres of Vietnamese
during the 1993 elections.
They since became one of Cambodia's, and
Vietnam's, most long-standing refugee problems and the subject of a high-level
wrangle between the two countries.
Oddly, many of the boatpeople are free
to return to Cambodia, illegally or legally. But they must leave their boats -
their homes and, as most of them fish for a living, their workplaces -
Cambodian border police confirm their orders are to allow
boatpeople with Cambodian identity cards to cross the border, but only without
Alternatively, the refugees can - with the payment of a
bribe or two - go ashore and cross the border on land.
Ng said he had
several times visited Phnom Penh to get money from relatives since moving to
"It's not difficult, but I cannot take my boat. I need my
boat and everything on it - it's my house."
Those with enough money,
however, can apparently buy their boats' passage to Cambodia.
to be 7000 boatpeople at Chrey Thom, some 3000 more than now, according to a
community representative. Asked where the others had gone, he smiles and says:
"Sometimes boats disappear from here and in a few days turn up on the Tonle
United Nations agencies are spearheading moves to get the Cambodian
government to allow at least some of the boatpeople to return
The village records of 22 families - proving they had lived for
generations in Cambodia - were recently located by the UN Center for Human
Rights. The records are to be used in support of the families' bids to return to
Australian judge Michael Kirby, the UN Secretary-General's
Special Representative on Human Rights in Cambodia - who led a delegation to
Chrey Thom on Jan 20 - said there were several hopeful signs that the situation
could be resolved.
They included the finding of the family records and a
recent visit to Chrey Thom by the Cambodian Co-Interior Ministers, Sar Kheng and
Kirby said he would press the government to establish a
tribunal to investigate, on a case-by-case basis, whether the boatpeople should
be allowed to live in Cambodia.
He considered the refugees' situation a
"test" of the government's commitment to human rights, he said.