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A Vietnamese village in limbo

A woman rows her boat in Kampong Chhnang’s Kandal village, where most of the residents are Vietnamese
A woman rows her boat in Kampong Chhnang’s Kandal village, where most of the residents are Vietnamese. Eli Meixler

A Vietnamese village in limbo

While anti-Vietnamese protesters marched and burned flags in the streets of Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Kampong Chhnang’s Kandal village was calm. Its residents, who are almost all stateless Vietnamese born in Cambodia, live in houseboats on the banks of the Tonle Sap across from the Phnom Kongrei mountain.

In the centre of the village floats a Mahayana Buddhist temple adorned with Chinese calligraphy and swastikas, and distorted Vietnamese rock can be heard from sound systems. An estimated 1,000 Vietnamese families live here in the area between Kandal and the adjacent Chong Koh village. Most of them are still legally considered immigrants despite having been born in the Kingdom and having roots that reach back generations.

The floating villagers remained untouched by the inflammatory racial rhetoric in the capital’s streets. NGOs, however, worry for their safety given anti-Vietnamese violence earlier in the year. The ongoing nationwide census, which aims to deport undocumented immigrants of all nationalities, has already sent at least 329 foreigners – most of them Vietnamese – out of the country. While the floating villagers in Kampong Chhnang have yet to be affected by either, the past week has served as a painful reminder of their second-class status in the Kingdom.

“If they don’t want Vietnamese to live in Cambodia and want to deport us to go back to Vietnam, I will go … because I have no [legal] right to be here,” said 53-year-old fisherman Nyugen Young Thong of Kandal village. Speaking in a thick Vietnamese accent, he said that he was born and has lived in Cambodia his entire life, save for a 13-year period when he took refuge in Vietnam to hide from the Khmer Rouge.

Although he possesses an immigration card and residency book, his immigration status may be in doubt as he has refused to pay a 250,000 riel (about $60) fee demanded by local immigration authorities. “I have lived on this water for many generations and I need to pay money all the time to get these documents,” he said bitterly.

Pham Min Hong, a 58-year-old scrap collector in the village, said that his immigration status was up to date but that he worries that the anti-Vietnamese agitation will affect his livelihood if his Khmer customers take their business elsewhere.

Do Yuong On, 50, with his grandchild
Do Yuong On, 50, with his grandchild. Eli Meixler

“I felt afraid when the Khmer Krom demonstrated, but I would like to think that the government will take care of this issue,” he said.

The recent wave of anti-Vietnamese protests was triggered in June when Vietnam Embassy spokesman Tran Van Thong publicly contested the common Cambodian view that southern Vietnam, or Kampuchea Krom, was taken from Cambodia and given to Vietnam by the French colonialists in 1949. 

“I have never heard or known about Kampuchea Krom,” said 53-year-old fisherman Nyugen Young Thong, when asked for his views on the protests taking place 100 kilometres away. “Even when I saw demonstrations on TV, I have never known who they are.”

Pham Min Hong, whose father is Khmer Krom, said he agrees with the protesters’ position. It is the xenophobia toward ordinary Vietnamese, he said, that worries him. “I don’t mind if they call me yuon,” he said, referring to a Khmer term for Vietnamese often considered derogatory, “but don’t blame me for my ancestors’ actions.”

Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Minority Rights Organisation (MIRO), said he fears for the Vietnamese community’s safety if the protests become violent. Anti-Vietnamese violence has broken out at least twice in Phnom Penh in 2014, with a motorist murdered by a mob in Meanchey district in February and a Vietnamese-owned coffee shop ransacked in January.

“I hope that the Cambodian government will allow [protesters] to demonstrate, otherwise the government will be blamed by the people as a Vietnamese puppet,” he said, adding that violent crackdowns on anti-Vietnamese demonstrators will likely result in anger being vented toward individuals of Vietnamese descent.

Chanrith, who said he agrees in principle with the deportation of illegally undocumented immigrants, said that the government should grant full citizenship in accordance with the Kingdom’s nationality laws. He said: “We always question the Department of Immigration to treat [Vietnamese born in Cambodia] not as immigrants – it’s not fair for them. If we look at the nationality law, some of them can get Khmer citizenship.”

Cambodian citizenship is hard to come by even for ethnic Vietnamese with long family lineages in the Kingdom. Scrap collector Pham Min Hong, who speaks fluent Khmer with a clear Cambodian accent, said he has spent his entire life in Kampong Chhnang. But despite being born in the Kingdom and marrying a Khmer woman, Pham Min Hong is neither a Cambodian nor a Vietnamese citizen.

A stateless individual, he must renew his immigration and residency cards every two years to live in the Kingdom legally. Although he said that both of his parents were born in Cambodia – a requirement for birthright citizenship among people with foreign parents – he must furnish both their birth certificates to be in compliance with the law. “I am so jealous of other people who can get the nationality, because I’ve lived here for many generations but I still cannot vote and live stably,” he said. 

Chanrith said that it is particularly rare for Vietnamese-Cambodian families to possess pre-Khmer Rouge legal documents due to the regime’s ethnic persecution of the community. “Some Vietnamese, their whole lives they don’t know about their family book, birth certificate or identity card,” said Chanrith, referring to the three legal documents which establish Cambodian citizenship.

Immigration documents belonging to Nyugen Young Thong
Immigration documents belonging to Nyugen Young Thong. Eli Meixler

Chanrith said he believes that there is merit to opposition party claims that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party allows unregistered Vietnamese to illegally vote in elections to bolster its support, although he also blamed the Cambodia National Rescue Party for exploiting anti-Vietnamese sentiment to appeal to its voter base. Both parties have repeatedly denied the accusations.

In Kampong Chhnang’s Kandal village, where Chanrith estimates that less than 10 per cent of residents have Cambodian nationality, voting is far off for most locals. Do Young Oun, a local fisherman and senior committee member at the local pagoda, said attempts to upgrade his immigration status to citizenship have been denied.

 “When I went to do it, they said that I did not fit enough categories to get Cambodian nationality,” he said, adding that his ancestral lineage in Cambodia predates King Norodom Sihanouk’s reign, which started in 1941.

For now, however, the idea of deportation seems far-fetched to many of Kampong Chhnang’s floating villagers. With the Vietnamese presence long established in the area, none of the residents who spoke with Post Weekend could recall a time when neighbours were deported for illegal immigration.

However, Do Young Oun and the other villagers said they are resigned to their powerlessness and would not resist if asked to leave. “If they want to deport us from this place, I would go, because everyone leaves so I need to leave with them as well. However, I am also scared to leave the country where we were born,” he said.

General Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration Department, declined to comment as the census is still in progress.


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