Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 04/06/2003. Mr Thach Setha, member of the Sam Rainsy Party, at a ceremony funded by King Norodom Sihanouk to commemorate the loss of Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam. (Photo: John Vink/ Magnum)
By Stéphanie Gée
Ka-set in English
The Khmer Krom, Cambodians born in the Mekong Delta in Kampuchea Krom, a region once fully part of the territory of Cambodia, are chased relentlessly by the Vietnamese authorities and mistreated, put in prison or placed under house
arrest whenever they try to peacefully express their political opinions and religious beliefs. In a report released on January 21st 2009 entitled "On the Margins: Rights Abuses of Ethnic Khmer in Vietnam's Mekong Delta ", the organisation for the defence of Human rights Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounces the harsh suppression by the Vietnamese government, "wary about possible Khmer Krom nationalist aspirations", of protests organised by this large ethnic group.
Khmer Krom monks targeted first by the Vietnamese authorities
"First, the police interrogated me every day, then a couple of times a week. Sometimes they questioned me from morning until 10 pm at night - I wasn't allowed to go home. […] They slapped the back of my head with their palms and hit me with rolled-up paper. They asked many questions and tried to frighten me by showing me handcuffs. […] The confession letter was already written. They forced me to copy what they wrote. If not, they would not allow me to eat or go home. I am not against the Vietnamese government. I abide by Vietnamese law. But they said I was not loyal to the nation."
These are the words of a Khmer Krom monk, quoted by Human Rights Watch (HRW). He was defrocked and placed under house arrest after participating in a peaceful protest in the Soc Trang province in 2007. What did the protesters call for? “Greater religious freedom and more Khmer-language education”, the report says. The police then surrounded the pagodas of monks suspected of leading the protest, expelled at least 20 monks from monkhood and “sent [them] back to their home villages, put them under house arrest or police detention, without issuing arrest warrants or specifying the charges against them”. In May 2007, the Soc Trang provincial court convicted five of the monks on charges of “disrupting traffic” and sentenced them to two to four years of imprisonment.
A policy coming from the Communist Party
The New York-based organisation thus calls the Vietnamese government to “free Khmer Krom Buddhist monks and land rights activists in prison or under house arrest for the peaceful expression of their political and religious beliefs” and regrets that it tightly controls Theravada Buddhism, practised by the Khmer Krom, who see this form of Buddhism as “the foundation of their distinct culture and ethnic identity”.
“The government should be trying to engage in dialogue with the Khmer Krom, rather than throwing them in jail”, says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. In researching this report, Human Rights Watch “came into possession of internal memos circulated by the Communist Party of Vietnam and Vietnamese government officials outlining their concerns about unrest among Khmer Krom in the Mekong Delta and strategies to monitor, infiltrate, and silence Khmer Krom activists”. According to Brad Adams, the documents, included in an appendix to the report, “lay bare the efforts by the Vietnamese government to silence critics”.
Abuses against Khmer Krom in Cambodia also
Investigators for Human Rights Watch documented in their 125-page report ongoing violations of the rights of the Khmer Krom in southern Vietnam but also abuses in Cambodia against Khmer Krom who have fled there for refuge. Indeed, although the Cambodian government has repeatedly stated that it considers the Khmer Krom to be Cambodian citizens, authorities “often react harshly when Khmer Krom become too critical of the Vietnamese government, a close ally of the Cambodian government”. The report stresses that in 2007, “Cambodian police forcefully dispersed a series of protests in Phnom Penh by Khmer Krom monks denouncing the rights abuses they had experienced in Vietnam”.
The report lists a few facts shedding light on the Cambodian government's position toward the ethnic group, eager to remain on good terms with its Vietnamese “ally”. In February 2007, a Khmer Krom monk, Eang Sok Thoeun, was killed in suspicious circumstances after he participated in a protest in Phnom Penh. In June 2007, Cambodian authorities arrested, defrocked, and deported to Vietnam a Khmer Krom activist monk, Tim Sakhorn, who was sentenced in Vietnam to a year in prison.
In Cambodia, as the authors of the report detail, Khmer Krom are subject to double discrimination, since they are “often perceived as ethnic Vietnamese by Cambodians”. As a result, many Khmer Krom in Cambodia face “social and economic discrimination and unnecessary hurdles to legalizing their status”.
Since the 2007-2008 peaceful protests conducted by Khmer Krom monks and farmers, tensions have become greater and suppression harsher in the Mekong Delta as Khmer Krom face serious restrictions on freedom of religion, “perceived as a privilege to be granted by the government rather than as an inalienable right”.