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The Khmer-Krom - Marginalised in Their Own Land

Kha Diep

(Ed. note: The author is a representative of the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation [KKF].)

Throughout Asia, indigenous people who have traditionally occupied a particular territory have found themselves and their land swallowed up within the confines of nation-states whose borders have been defined by colonial powers or dominant ethnic groups. In this process, they have become minorities with a different culture, values and worldview to those of the dominant society. As a minority community within the nation-state, they have been taught by their experiences that they have few, if any, rights. The Khmer-Krom people of Vietnam are no exception to this painful phenomenon.

The extent of the marginalisation of the Khmer-Krom is reflected in the fact that little is known in the region about their lives or their suffering. Thus, it is important to note, first of all, that the Khmer-Krom are an indigenous people who have inhabited Kampuchea-Krom, a region in the Mekong Delta, for more than 20 centuries. They have their own distinct culture, language, religion, traditions and customs. Throughout much of their tragic history, they have been under foreign domination. In 1949, the French government, without a plebiscite, transferred the area to the government of Vietnam. Under the control of the Vietnamese after the Vietnam War, the sad state of the Khmer-Krom has even worsened. There are constant and flagrant violations of the most basic human rights of the Khmer-Krom people by the Vietnamese government in its deliberate genocidal attempt to eliminate the Khmer-Krom people and their culture.

There has been, and continues to be, the wholesale seizure of land from Khmer-Krom farmers without any compensation, for example. The land is then given to Vietnamese farmers who are being illegally settled by the Vietnamese government to displace the Khmer-Krom natives. Other Khmer-Krom farmland is appropriated by the government for roads and irrigation systems. No compensation is given, however, to the Khmer-Krom who lose their land regardless of the rationale for acquiring it. Indeed, if the Khmer-Krom people wish to use water from the irrigation systems, they must pay for it.

Freedom of expression is also prohibited. Neither freedom of speech nor of the press are allowed. The right of peaceful assembly is not tolerated either. Political dissent is brutally repressed by arrest, detention, torture, life incarceration and assassination.

Currently, there is no legal system to protect the Khmer-Krom from mistreatment by government authorities or by private Vietnamese citizens. One of the most disturbing incidents happened earlier this year in the province of Hai Tien. A mother and daughter were detained, handcuffed and thrown into a detaining vehicle like a piece of luggage. Both suffered severe head and body injuries. They were detained because of their refusal to sign documents giving up their home and land to the authorities. Upon arrival at the interrogation centre, both the mother and daughter were brutally beaten and thrown in jail. The mother was coughing up blood and was released. However, her daughter continued to be held. The mother was told that if she did not sign the paper she would be beaten again and her daughter would be tortured to death. Fearing for her daughter's life, the mother decided to sign the document, giving up their right to their home and land. Presently, the mother and daughter are homeless and severely injured and have not received any medical treatment. Within a one-month period in early 2005 alone, a total of seven families were treated the same way with their homes and lands confiscated. The same displacement and persecution is occurring throughout Soc Trang in Can Tho Province where most Khmer-Krom people live. Increasingly, the Khmer-Krom people are becoming homeless without food and medical attention. Many fled to Cambodia seeking temporary settlement in refugee camps. However, most were denied adequate care and protection and are homeless. 

Other cases illustrate the denial of people's civil and political rights. For instance, in one week, three students were arrested and detained for interrogation because they were visiting human rights web sites. They all were released after two days of interrogation. They and their family members were threatened with torture and other inhumane treatment if they told anyone about their treatment.

Meanwhile, the Khmer-Krom are not allowed to practice their religion. About 95 percent of the Khmer-Krom practice the Hinayana school of Buddhism whereas the Mahayana school of Buddhism is practiced by most Vietnamese. The government does not tolerate the practice of the Hinayana school and posts soldiers at its temples to insure this policy in enforced. Many monks have been murdered or imprisoned or "made to disappear." Others have been conscripted into the army, which is creating a vacuum in the Khmer-Krom's Buddhist clergy. Moreover, many temples have been destroyed, and others are used as prisons. Like the Khmer-Krom farmers, land owned by Khmer-Krom Buddhist temples has been seized and given to Vietnamese settlers to build homes.

Other aspects of the Khmer-Krom people's culture has been threatened as well. Indeed, the Vietnamese government has viewed their culture with disdain. The Khmer-Krom people, for instance, are not permitted to wear their traditional clothing or to construct museums displaying their culture. In addition, there is no library with books in the Khmer language anywhere in Vietnam or a centre for Khmer-Krom studies. The Khmer-Krom people also complain that the teaching of their language in public schools is inadequate.

A lack of health care is also a concern of the Khmer-Krom with blindness that has spread throughout Kleang Province since 2003 reaching epidemic proportions. It is currently estimated that more than 3,000 Khmer-Krom people have suffered from this horrific epidemic. Unfortunately, the origin of the blindness has not been determined, and there is no treatment. The Vietnamese government though has failed to make a serious effort to tackle the problem.

To enforce the Vietnamese government's repressive policies, the Khmer-Krom are arbitrarily and routinely arrested and detained without the benefit of a trial or legal representation. Others are summarily executed or "disappear." Legal protection, due process or common civil liberties simply do not exist for the Khmer-Krom people. In short, the Khmer-Krom people face widespread discrimination by the government and society affecting every aspect of their lives with little likelihood that there will be any change.

Posted on 2005-08-22
Asian Human Rights Commission

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