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A lesson in the lives of others: film educates about Tonle Sap minorities

A Vietnamese and Cham floating village. Often, Vietnamese-Cambodians lack citizenship of either country. Photo supplied
A Vietnamese and Cham floating village. Often, Vietnamese-Cambodians lack citizenship of either country. Photo supplied

A lesson in the lives of others: film educates about Tonle Sap minorities

A new Khmer-language documentary traces the lives and the histories of Cham and Vietnamese Cambodian communities living on the Tonle Sap – with an aim to reduce misunderstanding about ethnic minorities in the Kingdom.

Somnatt was produced by Kdei Karuna Organization, a conflict-resolution NGO based in Phnom Penh, and screened for the first time on Tuesday evening.

The film features eight protagonists from four different provinces: Kampong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang and Siem Reap. All of them reside in floating villages. Somnatt is a Khmer word that loosely translates to “the flow of life on the river”, with an emphasis on continuity.

Ly Rattanak, a project officer at Kdei Karuna, explained that the organisation wanted to promote intercultural understanding – and discussion.

“With the 30-minute video documentary, we target students, stakeholders, NGO workers and especially youth, discuss how to create harmony within Cambodian society, and to understand about the experiences of others,” Rattanak said.

He added that the stories told in Somnatt could reduce misunderstanding and prejudice about ethnic minority communities in Cambodia, particularly Vietnamese-Cambodians.

Phan Theng Daey, 66, is one of the characters to recount her life onscreen, in Kampong Chhnang. A Vietnamese-Cambodian, she married a Khmer man in the 1970s.

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The NGO who made Somnatt hopes it can help educate villagers. Photo supplied

“When I married, my husband changed my name to Chantha, because we were afraid that the Khmer Rouge leader would know that I was not Cambodian,” she said in an interview this week.

Born in Cambodia, Daey explained that she doesn’t have official documentation of citizenship from either Cambodia or Vietnam – no national identity card.

“I am Vietnamese, but I’ve never been to Vietnam,” she said.

El Kob, a 59-year-old Cham man living in Battambang – who does possess an ID card – raises similar issues of identity in the past and present in the film.

“Although we struggled during the Khmer Rouge regime, our Cham community lives in peace now,” he said. “Cambodia is my birthplace.”

Rattanak hopes their stories will promote understanding in place of prejudice. Negativity towards ethnic minorities in Cambodia – and especially Vietnamese-Cambodians – has often been rooted in politics or history, he explains.

But he thinks that Somnatt will show that these river communities are actually some of the Kingdom’s most vulnerable.

“We found that Cham and Vietnamese-Cambodian communities lack information. They don’t know their rights,” he said.

“As a result, they have challenges living in their own places on the river, on the Tonle Sap.”

Somnatt is set to have public screenings around Cambodia and will be made available to NGOs.

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