October 8, 2007

Khmer Krom: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Following the recent UNPO/KKF demonstration in Geneva, the Human Rights Tribune describes the precarious political vice they find themselves in; welcome neither here nor there.

Following the recent UNPO/KKF demonstration in Geneva, the Human Rights Tribune describes the precarious political vice they find themselves in; welcome neither here nor there.

Below is an article published by:      

The Vietnamese treat them as political troublemakers - the Cambodians as spies. From the former Cochin China, the Khmer Kroms no longer know where to turn to be recognised as a separate people. During the sixth session of the Human Rights Council, they went to meet Louise Arbour in Geneva

They are deeply Buddhist and fiercely anti-communist. They feel completely Cambodian. They are calling for their own identity, language and religion. At the heart of their tragedy is the fact that they live in the former Cochin China along the Mekong delta on Vietnamese territory, a land governed by the doctrine of Marx and Lenin and which has very ambivalent relations with its Cambodian neighbour. The suffering of the Khmer Kroms has gone on for decades.

Considered as dangerous political agitators by the government in Hanoi, they have been rejected by their Cambodian brothers who see them as potential spies sent by their neighbour, who though officially an ally, in reality is an enemy. In order to defend themselves, they set up a Federation and in 2001 became members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization [UNPO]. During the 6th session of the Human Rights Council, they came to plead their cause to the High Commissioner Louise Arbour. At the end of September [2007], nearly 400 Khmers from all over Europe formed a human chain in front of the Geneva office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"We are only calling for the right to live in peace on our land, to be able to speak Khmer, to practise Theravada Buddhism, to travel freely between Cambodia and Vietnam and to teach our history in our schools. We also want the continual persecution of our people to stop," said Vien Thach, vice president of the Federation of Khmers of Kampuchea Krom with a gentle demeanour and affable air. He lives in Paris but regularly returns to Cambodia and Vietnam to gather information about the situation on the ground. According to the Federation, there are eight million Khmer Kroms in Vietnam compared to just over a million in Cambodia. Deeply attached to their culture, they have criticised Hanoi’s policy of vietnamisation.

Sitting in a vast UN lobby, Vien Thach goes through the never-ending list of abuses and humiliations suffered by his compatriots: interference by the Vietnamese authorities in the organisation of the monasteries and in the daily life of the Khmers Kroms, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances and deportations to re-education camps. In June [2007], a monk was found with his throat slit in his cell because he took part in a pacifist demonstration in front of the Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia. And Vien Thach indicates that Vietnam still has a heavy influence on the Khmer government.

The case of the respected Tim Sa Korn, a Khmer Krom monk, is symptomatic of the situation that this community finds itself in, rejected by both sides. In February [2007], Tim Sa Korn was defrocked by the head of the temple of Phnom Den, near the Cambodian capital. He was then expelled from Cambodia (a country whose nationality he holds) to Vietnam. The reason given was that he had allegedly been involved in activities that threatened Khmer Vietnamese friendship. Imprisoned in Vietnam, he then disappeared. His family have had no word of him. Other monks and human rights activists have also been jailed in flagrant breach of any respect for their fundamental human rights or their nationality.

As for the respective governments, both play political football with them and make contradictory statements. After accusing Tim Sa Korn of "threatening Khmer Vietnamese friendship", the Cambodian Ministry of Information changed its tune. It said Tim Sa Korn had had sexual relations with women, the reason he was defrocked and expelled to Vietnam. Another version circulating was that he abused other monks or that in actuality he was an evangelical Christian disguised as a monk, who had "fornicated". This was done in order to tarnish the image of Buddhism and to incite believers to convert to Christianity as a more pure religion. 

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Who are the Khmer Kroms?

Kampuchea Krom means ’Lower Cambodia’, or from the South. Kampuchea Krom, known at one time as Cochin China (68,000Km2 in area) was historically part of the Khmer empire. Today it is in South West Vietnam and includes the current city of Ho Chi Minh.

After the WW II, France gave Cochin China to Vietnam. It was then that the persecution and abuse of the Khmer Kroms began. Sworn enemies of communism, they fought with the Americans in the Vietnamese war. This did not help them when the North won the war. On top of this they have also been massacred by the Khmer Rouges who took them for Vietnamese.

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