Ethnic Khmer who fled Vietnam and built a new life in Cambodia now find themselves disenfranchised.
Khmer Krom monks demanding asylum
in Cambodia rally in front of the UNHCR
offices in Phnom Penh, Aug. 2, 2005.AFP
Members of the Khmer Krom minority in Vietnam who moved to Cambodia say they cannot get a clean water system in their village because they are ignored by local authorities.
The residents of Bek Krong, in the Prey Nop commune in southern Cambodia’s Sihanoukville province, say that life has been more difficult for them in Cambodia than they expected because they lack access to the most basic necessity.
“It is hard because we don’t have fresh water,” said Krom Soeung Thy, a Bek Krong resident who fled Vietnam 20 years ago.
“The fresh water has to be supplied from elsewhere and the price is so expensive,” he said.
The isolated village, where homes are built on stilts above sea water, is the only Khmer Krom village in the commune and the only one without access to clean water.
Most of the 200 families of Bek Krong moved to Cambodia between 1985 and 1988, seeking better livelihoods and fleeing persecution as members of an ethnic minority in Vietnam.
The Khmer Krom are from 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.
But even after moving to Cambodia, the Khmer Krom residents of Bek Krong have found their economic situation strained.
“I had hoped to flee Cambodia to grow rice, but when I arrived, all the land for rice fields was already bought. Now I am leasing fields to grow rice,” one resident named Chao Den, said.
Chao Den said life was freer in Cambodia than in Vietnam, where he had faced “emotional stress because of pressures and persecution.”
But now in Bek Krong, taking care of water needs is a problem, he said.
Chao Den said he spends 5,000 to 10,000 riel (U.S. $1.25 to $2.50) a day to buy clean water.
The village is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the nearest highway, making transporting water expensive. Until the highway was built, villagers had to bring water by boat.
Prey Nop Commune Chief Pen Sambo acknowledged that the village faces water shortages, but said little could be done about the problem.
“Experts have conducted studies for four years, but there is no way to dig wells. The only solution is to connect with fresh water from the highway,” he said.
He added that he had asked NGOs to dig wells there, but there was no way to do so that would produce fresh water.
Finding it hard to make a living in the village, some of Bek Krong’s residents have moved on to Thailand in search of a better life.
One villager said that even though he has enjoyed more freedom in Cambodia, living in such a remote area—while relying on fishing and growing crops for a livelihood—is too difficult for some.
“Some of us, we work for fishermen, and some are having difficulty making ends meet, so they are migrating to work in Thailand,” he said.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said the Khmer Krom face serious restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, information, and movement in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government has banned Khmer Krom human rights publications and tightly controls the Theravada Buddhism by the minority, who see 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 despite promises to treat them as Cambodian citizens, authorities have failed to grant many Khmer Krom citizenship or residence rights, according to HRW.