Nearly 1,000 ethnic Khmer Krom living in Cambodia on Tuesday marked the 64th anniversary of the loss of their territory to Hanoi amid calls to protect the rights of the remaining members of the group in Vietnam.
Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community (KKKC) in Cambodia, spoke at a rally in Phnom Penh urging the Vietnamese government to “end the persecution of Khmer Krom” and to protect the group’s indigenous rights.
More than 1 million Khmer Krom live in southern Vietnam’s lower Mekong delta region, which Cambodians sometimes call "Kampuchea Krom," or "Lower Cambodia." As Khmers, they are ethnically similar to most Cambodians, and are considered outsiders in Vietnam, where they face social persecution and strict religious controls.
The group contends that its traditional homeland was part of Cambodia before it became part of French Cochin-China and was later handed over to the Vietnamese following the French withdrawal from the area following the Indochina war in 1955.
But Thach Setha, who is also a senator for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in Cambodia, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Khmer Krom were not asking for their territory to be returned to them.
“This is what not what we are asking from the Vietnamese government, which always says that the Khmer Krom want to claim Khmer Kampuchea Krom back," he said.
He said that any discussions regarding the return of Kampuchea Krom to Cambodia would have to take place between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments.
One of the most important seaports of Kampuchea Krom was once called Prey Nokor, but is now known as Ho Chi Minh City—the financial hub of Vietnam and one of the most bustling metropolises in Southeast Asia.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay, who participated in Tuesday’s gathering, said that Cambodia must use its close relations with Vietnam to persuade Hanoi to provide greater rights to the Khmer Krom.
“[Cambodia’s] government must ensure the protection of the country’s territory and the rights of the people,” Son Chhay said.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Cambodia could not be reached for comment.
The gathering in Cambodia came as around 300 Khmer Krom in Australia and 250 in the U.S. staged protests in front of the Vietnamese embassies in Canberra and Washington, respectively, demanding the release of two Khmer Krom Buddhist monks and two laymen who were arrested last month following accusations of anti-state activity.
According to the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, monks Lieu Ny and Thach Thuol were arrested along with laymen Thach Phum Rich and Thach Tha on May 16 at the Ta Set temple in Vietnam’s Soc Trang province.
The state-controlled Patriotic United Buddhist Association of Soc Trang province had announced two days before that they would force the monks to defrock, declaring in a statement by Buddhist leader Duong Nhon that the two men had used phones and the Internet to give interviews and transmit “fabricated information” about Vietnamese state policy toward the Khmer Krom minority.
The whereabouts and well-being of the four men from Ta Set temple are unknown.
The Khmer Krom protesters in Australia and the U.S. also called for the reinstatement of a third Khmer monk, Ly Chanh Da of Vinh Chau’s Prey Chop temple, who was defrocked by local police on May 16 and thrown unconscious into the street, according to the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said the Khmer Krom face serious restrictions of freedom of expression, assembly, association, information, and movement in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government has banned Khmer Krom human rights publications and tightly controls the practice of Theravada Buddhism by the minority group, which sees the religion as a foundation of their distinct culture and ethnic identity.
In 2007, the Vietnamese government suppressed protests by over 200 ethnic Khmer Buddhist monks in Suc Trang who were calling for religious freedom and more Khmer-language education.
On the other side of the border, the Khmer Krom who leave Vietnam for Cambodia remain one of the country’s “most disenfranchised groups,” HRW said.
Because they are often perceived as Vietnamese by Cambodians, many Khmer Krom in Cambodia face social and economic discrimination.
They also face hurdles in legalizing their status in the country, as authorities have failed to grant many Khmer Krom citizenship or residence rights despite promises to treat them as Cambodian citizens, according to HRW.
Reported by Tin Zakariya for RFA’s Khmer Service and by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.