In Vietnamese Floating Villages, a Precarious Life

KOMPONG CHHNANG CITY – They live in floating houses along the river here because they have no legal right to own land. Some say their immigrant families have been here for generations, but they are all treated like outsiders.

For the thousand or so ethnic Vietnamese families who have lived and fished for years in the floating villages along this stretch of the Tonle Sap river in Kompong Chhnang, the insecurity of their lives here was made clear last week.

Veang Yang Tourng, left, sits with his family in his small floating home, a day after they were relocated last week.
Veang Yang Tourng, left, sits with his family in his small floating home, a day after they were relocated last week. (Jens Welding Ollgaard)

Evicted from moorings in the center of the provincial capital as part of a project to beautify the riverfront before the city hosts the River Festival in 2017, the villagers were told to float around the riverbend and out of sight.

Having lived mostly unmolested by authorities since they started settling here again after the Khmer Rouge’s fall in January 1979, the Vietnamese, who survive by breeding fish in cages under their homes, had no choice but to comply.

“We did not want to move. We cried and could not sleep because they separated our families,” said Le Thy Le, 58, who said she was born here under King Norodom Sihanouk’s reign in the 1960s.

“There’s nowhere for my children to dock here, as whoever moved first got all the good positions,” she said of the new location.

In a small floating home she estimated had cost her about $3,000, Ms. Le explained she had been sent back to Vietnam during the Khmer Rouge and again when Untac came in 1993 but had returned home both times.

“If we live in Cambodia, we have no land. If we live in Vietnam, we have no land. But I like it in Cambodia. Our ancestors lived and died here, and it’s usually easy. We can fish freely,” she said.

“I don’t know what the problem is now.”

Mr Heang peers out from one of the platforms that make up his community in the floating villages on the Tonle Sap river in Kompong Chhnang City last week.
Mr Heang peers out from one of the platforms that make up his community in the floating villages on the Tonle Sap river in Kompong Chhnang City last week. (Jens Welding Ollgaard)

Further up the river, a man who would give his name only as Mr. Heang for fear of reprisal by authorities, said many of the Vietnamese are concerned about their livelihoods in the new spot, but had no choice but to make the move.

“We’re not happy because the water is not deep enough here, and it is difficult to raise fish. The water is only 3 meters deep but it was 5 meters there. It may not even be possible to farm fish here,” said Mr. Heang, who is in his 60s.

“We have no right to buy land because we are Vietnamese and only have our residency documents. Even though my parents and grandparents also lived and died here, they consider us to be Vietnamese,” he said.

Despite being shunted to a poor location on the river, Mr. Heang said that few would consider uprooting and going to live in Vietnam—even if they would be able to buy land—due to their now long ancestral roots in Cambodia.

“I am not from Vietnam,” he said. “My parents were here during the Sihanouk regime. We have been here a long time.”

Mr. Heang’s 18-year-old son, Heang Chhay, said he studied in ninth grade with Cambodians—in a school on the land—and, apart from living in the floating villages, felt little discrimination.

“No, but some people call me ‘Yuon.’ I don’t care,” he said, speaking in English but using a Khmer word for Vietnamese often considered derogatory. “We are friends. I am Vietnamese, so you can call me ‘Yuon.’ It’s a bad word, but Cambodians use it. Only a few say ‘Vietnam.’”

Like his father, Mr. Chhay said he did not have citizenship, but would try to buy land one day.

“We can buy anything, but we need the money,” he said. “I will set up a store to sell flowers, like we do here now.”

A young man moors his floating house to a neighboring house last week after moving it down the river.
A young man moors his floating house to a neighboring house last week after moving it down the river. (Jens Welding Ollgaard)

As part of last week’s move, provincial authorities promised many of the ethnic Vietnamese villagers that they would scout out some land for them to live on within two years—in lieu of their preferred spot on the river.

Toth Kimsroy, coordinator for the Minority Rights Organization in Kompong Chhnang, said he believed the Vietnamese villagers would eventually be allowed to rent land as part of this solution.

“According to the law, they have no rights to buy land like Khmer people, but I saw the Kompong Chhnang provincial authorities make an exception for those people. They suggested they move onto land,” Mr. Kimsroy said.

“Some Vietnamese residents said that their Vietnamese Association already bought some land in the flooding areas near their new location [on the Tonle Sap] and they said that the association will rent that land to them.”

Yet the notion of giving land to ethnic Vietnamese—however poor—remains vexed for many Cambodians, who harbor fears the villagers could one day give pretext for Vietnam to annex land, like it did Southern Vietnam.

“Now is the same as before. They just moved them down the river—these days we look at them as if they are our citizens,” said Keo Horn, 39, back on the land in Kompong Chhnang, where he works as a motorbike-taxi driver.

“I am very concerned about this. After they live here for a long time, their children and their next generations will live together with our next generation, and I fear our land could be lost like Kampuchea Krom,” Mr. Horn said.

“When the Vietnamese become rich, they will sell that land to them, and we will lose it. Some of the [Vietnamese] people have already bought land and are building houses.”

Two boys ferry a packet of instant noodles between houses in the floating villages.
Two boys ferry a packet of instant noodles between houses in the floating villages. (Jens Welding Ollgaard)

A national history holds that Southern Vietnam—known in Khmer as “Kampuchea Krom,” or Lower Cambodia—was in fact lost due to an unchecked influx of Vietnamese settling on rivers, who later moved onto the land.

In his 2014 book “The Khmer Lands of Vietnam,” anthropologist Philip Taylor noted that French colonialists observed Vietnamese settlers who arrived in Kampuchea Krom from the north and took up land on or around uninhabited waterways that were mostly shunned by Khmers.

“Writing about Vietnamese or ‘Annamite’ migrants to Cochinchina, [Louis] Malleret observed that ‘the abode of choice for these new arrivals was the low land, along natural waterways,’ where their settlements are ‘wedded sinuously’ to the watercourses, their houses built at ground level,” Mr. Taylor wrote.

“By contrast, Khmers prefer to build their houses on stilts, in villages situated atop sandy hillocks, ‘where the soil is drier, the fever benign and the water more sanitary.’”

Mr. Taylor noted it was unclear how accurate the generalization was in explaining Kampuchea Krom’s colonization.

“Nevertheless, many Khmers in Cambodia agree with it, considering residence upon the river or the riverbanks to be a stereotypically Vietnamese practice,” he wrote. “Khmers are said to have often voluntarily surrendered territory to their neighbors, out of passivity.”

The fears of this history repeating itself inside Cambodia are not helped by stories of Vietnamese and Cambodian officials encouraging settlement along the river.

In the floating village, Veang Yang Tourng, 62, said he was forced to go live in Vietnam when Untac arrived to hold elections in 1993—but later returned at the behest of Vietnamese officials in 1996, and received residency in 1998.

“Vietnam gave us rice to encourage us to come back to Cambodia. The last time we came back, the Cambodians gave us rice, tins of fish, mosquito nets and blankets for one year,” said Mr. Tourng, adding he never asked questions.

“I don’t know why. We are just regular people.”

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a longtime critic of what he has described as lax enforcement of immigration laws by the CPP government, said it was reasonable for Cambodians to fear the Vietnamese living on the river.

“If you put yourselves in the shoes of those people who have been taught by their parents and ancestors, what they know is that Cambodia started to lose her territory over the past 400 years largely due to immigration, due to the settlers,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“It is understandable that Cambodians have this fear that if we don’t implement our laws and we allow more and more foreigners to come, one day we will become aliens in our land, like Cambodians in Kampuchea Krom,” he said.

Yet Mr. Rainsy said that so long as Vietnamese living in Kompong Chhnang or other areas were all properly documented, he believed they could coexist with Cambodians without threatening the country’s sovereignty.

“What is most important is to implement the law. We have to check what they say. It may be true, it may not be true. They say they have been here for many generations. If that is the case, we have to respect their rights.”

The fears of Vietnamese villagers facilitating territory grabs are not universal among Cambodians living here in Kompong Chhnang.

Loeu Koloan, 36, who operates a boat-for-hire near the floating villages, said he had seen the poverty of the villagers up close and had few fears about them coming onto land.

“We are happy all together. Khmer citizens and foreigners can live together—I am not concerned about their citizenship. If they want to live here, let them. They do different jobs, and they live apart from us,” Mr. Koloan said.

“We farm rice, but when the Vietnamese people do business, they do their farming on the water —it’s fishing instead,” he added.

“I don’t think they want our land and I am not concerned about that. They are our brothers and sisters.”

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