Thousands of ethnic Vietnamese living in the floating villages that dot the Tonle Sap are being repatriated to Vietnam as their livelihood drains away and they can’t come up with the documentation needed to stay in Cambodia, RFA’s Khmer Service has learned.
While hard numbers are difficult to come by, VietnamNet reported that 5,000 ethnic Vietnamese families who had been living in the floating villages are now living in Vietnam.
A group of Vietnamese still living in the floating village in Kampong Chhnang’s Svay Chrum Commune told RFA that while they were born in Cambodia they are leaving because environmental damage to the Tonle Sap has decimated the fishing and they can’t prove their residency in Cambodia.
Nguyen Yaing An told RFA that while life is tough enough, Cambodian authorities have tried to move them from place to place, and lately the authorities attempted to convince them buy land to live near what is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia.
The land offer appears genuine, but it is costly and the plots also lack titles or other documentation that prove the new owners have the right to stay.
“The land they wanted to sell to us, came with no documents and costs 1,000 to 2,000 U.S. dollars,” he said. “We do not have the money to buy them. We do not even have enough rice to cook.”
Nguyen Yaing An told RFA that if the situation becomes more difficult, his family will drag their floating house to Vietnam.
Another Vietnamese resident on the lake, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that about 60 Vietnamese families from the Svay Chrum floating village plan to leave for Vietnam in October.
“They told us to live here temporarily, that means that they will chase us away again,” the Vietnamese said. “If they move us this time to live off the lake, we do not have the money to buy land.”
For Sale signs and empty houses
Nearly 1,500 floating houses owned by mostly by ethnic Vietnamese villagers from Psar Chhnang commune were moved to Svay Chum Commune in late 2015. Many of those houses are vacant, or they have “for sale” signs posted on them.
Tot Kim Sroy, the Minorities Rights Organization (MIRO) coordinating official in Kampong Chhnang, told RFA that the poverty among the Vietnamese living on the lake is epidemic, but the biggest challenge is the lack of fish.
The Tonlé Sap River connects the lake to the Mekong River to form the central part of a complex hydrological system in the Cambodian floodplain. It covers a myriad of natural and agricultural habitats that the Mekong replenishes with water and sediments annually.
The natural seasonal inflow and outflow of water has been hammered by a combination of global warming, overfishing and illegal fishing, the mostly illegal clearance of surrounding forest lands and the Asian dam-building boom that threatens the entire Mekong River system.
Most threatened lake
The Global Nature Fund, based in Radolfzell, Germany, named the Tonle Sap the world’s most threatened lake in 2016.
While the lake is under stress, ethnic Vietnamese living off the Tonle Sap also fear the Cambodian authorities. Animosity between Vietnam and Cambodia goes back centuries, but it was heightened by the Vietnamese war that ousted the Khmer Rouge and paved the way for long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ascension to power.
Accusations over the demarcation of the border between Vietnam and Cambodia has become a prominent feature in Cambodian politics as Hun Sen’s opponents have attempted to paint the strong man as tool of the Vietnamese.
“We could not get the actual number of how many families are living in this area because they have been hiding in fear for their safety,” Tot Kim Sroy told RFA.
Cambodian Interior Ministry’s spokesperson Khiev Sopheak told RFA that he did not know how many Vietnamese families with legal documents have returned to Vietnam.
“Right after the liberation in 1979, our east border line was not safeguarded seriously,” he said. “I hope that Vietnamese friends will understand that the Cambodian government with the ruling CPP will fully implement the country’s immigration law.”
Reported by Sopheak Chin for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.