Who are Cambodia’s Vietnamese?
Living in communities across the country, ethnically Vietnamese people are the largest minority community in Cambodia. While exact numbers regarding the Vietnamese population are unavailable, the 2008 census found that 0.54 percent of Cambodians identified Vietnamese as their Mother Tongue. A significant portion of the ethnic Vietnamese population lives in predominantly Vietnamese communities situated on Lake Tonle Sap and the Tonle Sap River. Throughout the centuries-long history of Vietnamese migration and settlement in Cambodia, the relationship between Khmer and Vietnamese people has often been tense, stemming from years of conflict and power struggles between the nations. As the result of this long and complex history, ethnic Vietnamese are now subject to a number of human rights issues in Cambodia. Some of the most pressing issues for Cambodia’s Vietnamese residents are statelessness, lack of access to social services including healthcare and education, and political and public discrimination and racism.
Vietnamese people have been migrating to and living in Cambodia for centuries. Under French rule of Indochina (1863-1953), migration from Vietnam to Cambodia increased, with many of Cambodia’s modern Vietnamese villages dating back to this period. In the 1970s, first under the Khmer Republic (1970-75), and later under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79), anti-Vietnamese attitudes in Cambodia grew, largely because of anti-Vietnamese government propaganda. During the Khmer Republic period, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had to flee Cambodia to escape persecution.
With the rise of the Khmer Rouge to power in 1975, life only worsened for the Vietnamese. Over the course of their four-year rule of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge systematically dismantled the country’s Vietnamese community, eliminating their presence in Cambodia entirely. The majority of Cambodia’s Vietnamese community were forced out of the country as refugees to Vietnam, while all of the 20 000 Vietnamese who did not leave were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Prosecutors in the ECCC trials have condemned these actions as genocide.
In 1979, the Vietnamese army removed the Khmer Rouge from power, and implemented a military occupation of Cambodia. With this, a new wave of immigration from Vietnam to Cambodia took place, as many people returned to the homes and villages they had fled. Although the majority of migrants from Vietnam to Cambodia were people returning to the villages their families had lived in for generations, the immigration wave added further stress to Khmer-Vietnamese relations. Many Khmer people saw the Vietnamese army’s occupation of Cambodia as a form of expansion and colonization. The view that Vietnam has too much power in Cambodia remains strong to this day, as Prime Minister Hun Sen was installed as Cambodia’s leader by the Vietnamese government in 1985 and has maintained strong ties to Vietnam for the entirety of his nearly 30-year rule. As a result, the disdain for Vietnamese political influence in Cambodia has turned many people against the ethnic Vietnamese population of the country. Along with these problems of public discrimination, during the hectic process of returning to Cambodia, many Vietnamese did not receive documentation proving their legal rights to Cambodian citizenship. These historical events are responsible for the modern issues faced by Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese.
Challenges for Cambodia’s Ethnic Vietnamese
The first and most significant issue faced by the ethnic Vietnamese community is their inability to obtain identification papers proving their Cambodian citizenship. According to Cambodian nationality laws, if a child is born in Cambodia, and the parents live in the country legally, the child is considered a citizen of Cambodia. However, even though they meet this legal requirement, many Vietnamese cannot receive documentation to prove their citizenship. This is largely because of a lack of clarity in policy explaining the process by which Vietnamese must apply for documents, uncertainty within local authorities on how and when to issue new documents, lack of information in the communities on how to receive documentation, corruption, and ethnic discrimination. These barriers have left many Vietnamese in a position of statelessness, preventing access to the rights and services they would be entitled to as citizens.
The stateless status of many ethnic Vietnamese has translated into several issues facing the community. First, without citizenship Vietnamese do not have access to land ownership. Instead, the people live in floating villages, situated primarily on Lake Tonle Sap. This means that Vietnamese often live in poverty in isolated areas and have little livelihood security. They are traditionally fishermen, and are often extorted and mistreated by local fishing police. They have little choice but to submit to the extortion, as they fear defiance would lead to further punishment or even deportation. Furthermore, statelessness has resulted in low education rates across the community. Without birth certificates, children are disallowed from attending state schools. Other education options (including private schools) are often non-existent or not affordable due to the rampant poverty in ethnic Vietnamese communities. Education is a prerequisite to understanding one’s rights, and its inaccessibility constitutes a violation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Other issues stemming from statelessness include a lack of support from local authorities, and an inability to vote in Cambodian elections.
Alongside statelessness, political and public discrimination are both important issues facing Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese. While ethnic Vietnamese have strong and friendly relationships with their neighbors (often living side by side in the same villages, with many intermarriages), general public opinions about them are often negative. Specifically in the timeframes surrounding elections, accusations of Vietnamese influence on the Cambodian economy and politics are common. The Vietnamese are often used as scapegoats in political rhetoric, and are accused of responsibility for Cambodia’s political turmoil and corruption. Much of this anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is directed primarily at illegal migrants, but many people fail to recognize the distinction between illegal migrants and the stateless Vietnamese who are entitled to Khmer citizenship. As a result, the few ethnic Vietnamese citizens who are legally given the right to vote are often intimidated and physically prohibited from doing so.
MIRO Ethnic Vietnamese Projects
MIRO has implemented the following projects to address the rights and improve the living conditions of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese:
I. Monitoring Ethnic Vietnamese Rights:
MIRO monitors the human rights of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, calling attention to human rights violations against the community. To do so, MIRO conducts investigations, writes reports, lobbies local authorities to improve rights protection, and raises awareness of ethnic Vietnamese rights protection in the media and general public.
II. Protecting and Decreasing the Number of Vietnamese Stateless Persons in Cambodia
MIRO supports stateless Vietnamese in Cambodia, providing legal assistance for those seeking documentation, lobbying authorities to improve policy on the issue, and increasing Vietnamese knowledge of their human rights.
III. Support for school attendance of Viet Children
MIRO supports Vietnamese children seeking an education through funding for students, increasing support for education amongst Vietnamese parents, advocating for better access to education, and increasing public knowledge of education issues for the Vietnamese.