Khmer Krom Background

The Khmer Krom are a group of ethnically Khmer people living in modern day southern Vietnam, in the region of the Mekong River delta referred to as Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia). According to Vietnamese census data there are 1.2 million Khmer Krom people in Vietnam, but independent estimates suggest the number is as high as 7 million in Vietnam, and 8.2 million worldwide.[1] The Khmer Krom share a common language, religion, and culture with the Khmer majority of Cambodia. They are subject to widespread human rights abuse in Vietnam, and receive little support from the international community.

History of Khmer Krom

The Khmer Krom first arrived in Kampuchea Krom hundreds of years ago, when it was part of the Khmer Empire. However, over the course of the 17th to 19th centuries Khmer control over the region weakened and Kinh (Viet) people started to move to the region. In 1949 the French colonizers officially handed the region over to Vietnamese control. When Vietnam gained independence in 1954, Kampuchea Krom became part of the new state of South Vietnam. During this time period the Khmer Krom were subject to forced assimilation policies, restricting freedom of religion and education in the Khmer language.

After the Vietnam War, the new, united Vietnamese socialist government began to reduce private land ownership, and implemented land seizures from many Khmer Krom. As well, the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975 created further human rights abuses. By this time, as many as 200 000 Khmer Krom were living in Cambodia, with immigration increasing as fighting along the Cambodia-Vietnam border intensified. Khmer Krom were often viewed by the Khmer Rouge as “Vietnamese heads with Khmer bodies,” and were accused of being spies and allies of the Vietnamese. Due to the Khmer Rouge’s hostile attitude towards the Vietnamese, many innocent Khmer Krom were killed because of the assumed affiliation between the groups.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the living conditions of the Khmer Krom remained substandard. The policies of both the Vietnamese government and Khmer Rouge had left many Khmer Krom landless, with little social support.

Current Conditions for Khmer Krom in Vietnam

Today, Khmer Krom are subject to serious human rights abuses regarding their freedom to maintain a distinct identity from the Vietnamese majority. The Vietnamese government strictly controls Khmer Krom religious freedoms, limiting their practice of Theravada Buddhism, the majority religion of Khmer and Khmer Krom people. As well, they impede Khmer Krom children from receiving an education in Khmer, and have abolished literature on Khmer history and culture, punishing anyone who distributes related information. On top of all this, the Vietnamese government suppresses public advocacy for Khmer Krom rights, muzzling those who attempt to speak out. The Vietnamese government has defrocked, imprisoned, and tortured numerous Khmer Krom monks because of their outspoken criticism of national unity policies that are seen as suppressive of the Khmer Krom identity. The Vietnamese government carries out these punishments despite the peaceful nature of Khmer Krom protests.

Conditions for the Khmer Krom in Cambodia

As the Vietnamese government continuously violates the Khmer Krom’s rights, many have turned to Cambodia in search of better living conditions and rights protection. In total, 1.2 million Khmer Krom live in Cambodia, with several thousand migrating each year. While approximately 50 activists arrive in Cambodia each year in search of safety from persecution, the vast majority of Khmer Krom migrants leave their homes in Vietnam in search of better living conditions.[2] The Cambodian government has publicly stated that because of their Khmer ethnicity, Khmer Krom people choosing to take up residence in Cambodia are entitled to citizenship under the Cambodian Nationality Law. However, access to Khmer (Cambodian) citizenship for Khmer Krom is far more difficult in practice. When attempting to gain citizenship, many Khmer Krom are told they must have a permanent address in Cambodia. As well, some authorities view the Khmer Krom as Vietnamese, and force them to alter their names and official birthplaces in order to receive Khmer citizenship. On top of these issues, Khmer Krom often have to bribe officials to gain citizenship, which in many cases they cannot afford to do. While recent campaigns (conducted in part by MIRO staff) have positively impacted Khmer Krom access to citizenship, 20 to 30 percent of Khmer Krom in Cambodia still do not have legal identification, and live without the rights protection they have been guaranteed as Khmer citizens. This has resulted in poor living conditions for Khmer Krom in Cambodia, with inadequate access to social services. As Khmer Krom are often viewed as Vietnamese by the Cambodian public, they are ostracized and excluded from public life. In particular, Khmer Krom women struggle greatly, as 80 percent are illiterate and do not receive an education. As well, the unclear legal framework surrounding Khmer Krom citizenship has limited their ability to bring their injustices to court. Again, women in particular suffer from the shortcomings of the Cambodian judicial system, with many cases of domestic violence ignored by Cambodian authorities.

Over recent years, hundreds of Khmer Krom activists have left Vietnam to escape persecution. However, Cambodia has proven to be a poor shelter for those in need of protection. In several cases, Khmer Krom human rights advocates living in Cambodia with Khmer citizenship have been deported to Vietnam for prosecution. In other cases, the Cambodian police have suppressed peaceful protests regarding Khmer Krom rights.

The motivation for the mistreatment of Khmer Krom activists in Cambodia largely stems from the connections between the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments. The current government of Cambodia rose to power in the 1980s with the support of the Vietnamese. As a result, there is a close relationship between the governments that compels the Cambodian government to suppress Khmer Krom activists who criticize the Vietnamese government.

Khmer Krom Seeking Refuge in Thailand

As both Vietnam and Cambodia have become unsafe for Khmer Krom, many have attempted to seek asylum in Thailand. The asylum seekers apply at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but are often denied refugee status. Those who are rejected commonly live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, or are deported back to Vietnam or Cambodia where they often face prosecution. Those who are granted refugee status must wait for a foreign country to receive them, living illegally in Thailand for years before finding a new home. Thailand is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (UNCRSR), and does not provide funds to support these refugees while they wait for a secure home. On rare occasions, the UNHCR will financially support refugees, but the vast majority receives no support while in Thailand.

MIRO Khmer Krom Projects:

MIRO is implementing the following projects to address and protect the human rights of Khmer Krom people:

I. Khmer Krom Human Rights Monitoring: MIRO monitors and reports on human rights violations committed against Khmer Krom living in Cambodia, provides legal assistance for those seeking justice, and lobbies for reform in government policy on human rights.

II. Decreasing Statelessness Among Khmer Krom in Cambodia and Protecting Khmer Krom Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Thailand: MIRO supports stateless Khmer Krom people attempting to gain citizenship in Cambodia, and Khmer Krom activists seeking asylum abroad through training sessions on application processes, advocacy for greater rights protection, and lobbying for reform in the Cambodian government and UNHCR.

III. Khmer Krom Women Empowerment Projects: MIRO facilitates the empowerment of Khmer Krom women, focusing on issues of gender equality and political participation. MIRO achieves these objectives by providing legal assistance, conducting investigations on women’s rights, lobbying, and conducting workshops on rights and gender issues.

Read more about MIRO’s support for Khmer Krom 


Notes:

[1] While the Vietnamese government’s Khmer Krom population estimate is the most official source of information on the matter, independent research by the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) suggests the number of Khmer Krom in Vietnam is closer to seven million people. In total, KKF estimates place the number of Khmer Krom worldwide at 8.2 million, with 1.2 million in Cambodia and 40 000 in other countries (“Khmer Krom People Statistics.” Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, published January, 2006. Available at http://www.khmerkrom.org/news-events/human-rights-monitor/142-23khmer-krom-people-statistics).

[2] The majority of Khmer Krom in Cambodia have arrived in the past 30 years, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Krom who have lived in Cambodia for longer periods of time (before the Khmer Rouge) generally do not struggle with the same social and legal issues as the rest of Cambodia’s Khmer Krom population.