Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration on Friday hit out at opposition leaders for accusing the government of ceding territory to Vietnam at a ceremony this week commemorating the 65th anniversary of loss of land belonging to the Khmer Krom ethnic minority to Hanoi.
Government spokesman Keo Remy said Friday that opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha were “playing politics” by making such accusations.
“Their allegations are groundless,” he said of the claim that Hun Sen had ceded islands, such as Phu Quoc (in Khmer, Koh Tral), and other land to Vietnam, during a press conference in the capital Phnom Penh on Friday.
On Wednesday, while attending an event to mark the day in 1949 when France officially turned over its Cochinchina colony—which included the former Kampuchea Krom provinces—to Hanoi, Sam Rainsy accused Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of facilitating the loss to Vietnam of additional Cambodian territory through economic land concessions.
“Hun Sen’s government is granting land concession licenses to Vietnam,” Sam Rainsy said, referring to the many Vietnamese companies that have set up rubber plantations and other businesses in the country.
“They are allowing Vietnam to encroach on our land,” he said.
Sam Rainsy likened the granting of concessions to a form of “colonization” which he said led to Vietnamese control of Kampuchea Krom.
“What is happening now in Cambodia is reminiscent of the Vietnamese colonization of Kampuchea Krom [until the 20th century] when more and more foreign settlers were occupying a Khmer land, which was finally annexed by Vietnam following a dramatic change in the demographic balance,” he said.
Sam Rainsy who, along with Kem Sokha, attended the event at Phnom Penh’s Wat Samakki Raingsey on the invitation of Khmer Krom activists, also promised the roughly 600 people in attendance that if the CNRP was elected to government, he would grant identification cards and citizen’s rights to members of the ethnic minority that leave Vietnam and move to Cambodia.
Earlier, Kem Sokha had said that if his party was elected, he would make June 4 a national holiday to remember the loss of Kampuchea Krom, and pledged to provide greater protection of rights to Khmer Krom who resettle in Cambodia.
Princess Sisowath Pong Neary Monipong, a representative of the Royal Palace who attended the ceremony, and who is also Khmer Krom, ended the proceedings by saying that she neither “praised nor blamed” the speakers or the issues that were discussed, according to a report by the Cambodia Daily.
Phnom Penh municipal officials earlier in the week had banned Wat Samakki Raingsey, which is about 60 percent populated by Khmer Krom monks and is often seen as a refuge of last resort for members of the minority, from hosting a public forum at the ceremony, fearing a rise in racial tension.
France’s Cochinchina colony, which included the former provinces of Kampuchea Krom, was officially ceded to Vietnam in 1949, but had been under Vietnamese control since the mid-17th century.
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.
Since Hanoi took control, the Khmer Krom living in Vietnam—believed to number considerably more than one million and who are ethnically similar to most Cambodians—have increasingly faced social persecution and strict religious controls, according to rights groups.
Khmer Kampuchea Friends Association director Thach Setha told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Khmer Krom in Vietnam are not demanding their land back, but simply asking Hanoi to grant them their indigenous rights.
“It is the responsibility of the government and King [Norodom Sihamoni] to decide whether they want to claim the land back,” he said.
Some Khmer Krom groups have recently called for Cambodians around the world to travel to the former Kampuchea Krom provinces to “bridge the gap” with the ethnic minority.
Tran Van Thong, a spokesman with the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, told RFA that Hanoi welcomes all visitors to the country, but warned that any revolt campaign would be dealt with according to Vietnamese and international law.
“Americans, Laos, Thais, or Cambodians that travel to Vietnam in peace are welcome, but if they go to Vietnam to break any laws we will resolve those violations according to law,” he said.
He denied that Cambodia had “lost” Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam, adding that the land had “never belonged” to the kingdom in the first place.
“The claim that Cambodia lost land to Vietnam is groundless,” he said, adding that “there is no evidence” to support it.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch 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.
On the other side of the border, the Khmer Krom who leave Vietnam for Cambodia remain one of the country’s “most disenfranchised groups,” Human Rights Watch 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 Human Rights Watch.
Reported by Morm Moniroth and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.