Place des Nations (Geneva, Switzerland). Vien Thach, president of the Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation in Europe, co-organiser of the demonstration attended by Khmer Krom who came from all over the world to make themselves heard (Photo: Laurent Le Gouanvic)
By Laurent le Gouanvic
Coming from Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, New Zealand or Australia, among others, over 200 natives of Kampuchea Krom, a region located in the Mekong delta, in Southern Vietnam, and once Cambodian territory, gathered on Friday May 8th in front of the United Nations Palace, in Geneva, Switzerland. The exceptional event was organised by the Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) on the occasion of the very first hearing of the Vietnamese government by the United Nations Human Rights Council, under the Universal Periodic Review, a new mechanism meant to assess the human rights situation in each of the 192 member states of the United Nations. Interview, at the heart of the demonstration, with one of the main organisers, the president of the KKF in Europe, Vien Thach, who rejoices at a “historic day”.
On the morning of May 8th, the sky was favourable to the Khmer Krom cause, with an exceptionally sunny day in Geneva, Switzerland, and just enough wind for the blue-yellow-red flags of Kampuchea Krom to flap, along with the banners demanding the “right to self-determination”, “freedom of religion, expression and the press”, and the end of persecutions by Vietnam against “the indigenous Khmer Krom people”. The weather was also ideal to lay out mats on the Place des Nations, just in front of the eponymous palace, and make the demonstration a friendly gathering, with noum pang (sandwiches) being distributed and traditional dance shows. If some bemoaned having had to share the enormous square with another group of demonstrators, Vietnamese also calling for the respect of human rights and freedom of religion in Vietnam, the co-organisers – U.S. president of the Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) Thach Thach, his counterpart for the European representation of the KKF Vien Tach, and representatives of NGO UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization) rejoiced that they were able to bring their message to this international stage. Before going to the Palace of Nations, to attend Vietnam's hearing before the Human Rights Council, Vien Thach explained to Ka-set his expectations and the goal of the demonstration.
Ka-set: What are the violations of Khmer Krom's human rights you want to denounce with the United Nations?
Vien Thach: To give you the gist: First, the persecutions against Khmer Theravada Buddhism [practised by Khmer Krom as well as in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos most notably]; secondly, the grabbing of land belonging to Khmer Krom farmers; and thirdly, the falsification of Khmer Krom history by Vietnam. Our goal is to raise awareness in the international public on these issues and support the NGOs who support us, such as Human Rights Watch, whose [January 2009 report http://cambodia.ka-set.info/powers/news-hrw-human-rights-watch-khmer-krom-vietnam-090122.html Ka-set: Vietnam: Human Rights Watch analysts denounce violations of Khmer Krom rights] on Vietnam focuses largely on this issue.
K7: What do you mean by “falsification of history”?
VT: The Vietnamese government refuses to acknowledge that we are an indigenous people in this territory. They write in official documents and manuals that we are refugees who came from Cambodia and settled in Vietnam, whereas we have been there and occupied these lands for a long time, even before the Vietnamese. The Khmer Krom are indigenous people. You must not forget that 21 provinces in Southern Vietnam actually used to be Khmer territory. But in 1949, France gave our territory to Vietnam instead of returning it to Cambodia. From then on, we have been persecuted because Vietnam has a culture that is very different from ours, different religious practices... We have a lot of trouble living with the Vietnamese.
K7: The demonstrators gathered today live in Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand... Where does the information you report on persecutions and human rights violations against Khmer Krom come from?
VT: Our correspondents, compatriots who live there [Editor's note: in the Mekong delta], communicate information to us. That is one of the reasons why Vietnam does not dare to do us as much harm now. They have signed international human rights conventions, but that was first to receive money from donors... Until 2001, the Vietnamese government was not concerned in the least about Khmer Krom's fate. But the community of Khmer Krom throughout the world asked the international community to react and help these poor populations.
K7: Then, are you hoping to attract the attention of Vietnam's donors by demonstrating on the Place des Nations?
VT: Yes. Governments giving aid to Vietnam as well as international institutions, like the World Bank, must pressure the government of Hanoi. We are pursuing our efforts in that direction. The European Parliament, for instance, knows the situation quite well now. The deputies have even voted with a very large majority to condemn human rights violations in Vietnam.
K7: You have mentioned the period when Kampuchea Krom was officially part of Cambodia. This historic reference features heavily on the banners and signs brandished during this demonstration. Does that mean you are hoping for this region to be integrated back to Cambodia?
VT: No, that is not really the issue today. Cambodia has never supported us. So, we want to manage by ourselves. Khmer Krom monk Tim Sakhorn, although he was the head of a pagoda, had taken refuge in Cambodia... And the Cambodian government defrocked him and sent him back to Vietnam, while it is absolutely contrary to the Cambodian Constitution to extradite a compatriot. We do not count on Cambodia. Our fellow citizens cannot take refuge in Cambodia without fearing to be sent back to Vietnam, to the police, in the conditions you can imagine...
K7: Would you be ready to call for the independence of Kampuchea Krom?
VT: It is a very important question. But there are still many things to do before thinking about it. We do not want to get ahead of ourselves. Our compatriots are poor and most of them live in the countryside. First, we have to give them education, improve their living conditions, ensure that they know human rights.
The Universal Periodic Review
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a new mechanism established in 2006 with the creation of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UPR is meant to review the human rights situation in the 192 member states of the United Nations every four years. The ongoing process, under which Vietnam is currently being reviewed, is scheduled for completion by 2011. Ultimately, the goal is to equip the Human Rights Council with a universal mechanism recognised by member states, which will give it extra weight to enforce respect for human rights.