Anthropologist Offers Insight Into Plight of Khmer Krom

During their ongoing war against Vietnam in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge attacked the Vietnamese province of An Giang along the border and brought back to Cambodia about 20,000 people from Vietnam’s Khmer minority known as Khmer Krom.

This mass migration, which mainly took place in 1977 and 1978, remains one of the untold stories of the Pol Pot regime, said Australian anthropologist Philip Taylor on Sunday.

Was this operation meant as territorial expansion, another assault against Vietnam or a rescue mission of Khmer brothers?

Actually, it was none of the above, according to Mr. Taylor.

“This was a case of mass abduction [by a regime] striving to control,” he said.

At the time, there were around 100,000 Khmer Krom in that province, and the Khmer Rouge did not want to let such a large Khmer population—and one living along the Cambodian border—be autonomous, Mr. Tay­lor said.

In addition, the Khmer Rouge needed workers in their forced-labor camps where tens of thousands of Cambodians had already died of starvation and ill treatment, he added.

So the Khmer Rouge brought Khmer Krom to Cambodia and put them to work, treating them as “non-pure Khmer” always suspected of Vietnamese sympathy because of their origins, he said.

Mr. Taylor, who has been researching the Khmer Krom for nearly 15 years, will give a lecture at Meta House on Tuesday on the Khmer Rouge’s forceful importation of the Khmer Krom.

A research fellow with the Australian National University in Canberra, he is working on a book about the effects of Cambodia’s conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s on Vietnam’s Khmer minority, effects that continue to this day. The conference is organized by the social-science network Human Sciences Encounters in Phnom Penh.

Mr. Taylor has interviewed thousands of Khmer Krom during his numerous visits to Vietnam and the five years he lived in the Mekong Delta. In addition, he spoke to 100 Khmer Krom from An Giang province who had direct experiences of the Khmer Rouge “mass importation,” and discussed the era with both Khmer Krom and Vietnamese officials.

What emerges from his research, Mr. Taylor said, is that the Khmer Krom had been under suspicion on both sides of the border.

While some Khmer Krom may have supported the Khmer Rouge, many who were brought to Cambodia did so against their will, he said.

But when they returned to An Giang province after the 1979 Khmer Rouge defeat at the hands of Cambodian and Vietnamese forces, the Viet­nam­ese authorities mainly viewed them as Khmer Rouge fleeing Cambodia, and therefore enemies of Vietnam, Mr. Taylor said.

The biggest reprisals came from the Vietnamese population that recalled the Khmer Rouge massacres of Vietnamese villages: They made it difficult for returning Khmer Krom to claim their rights to residency and the land they had previously owned, he said.

In the meantime in Cambodia, the Khmer Krom have often had their Khmer identity questioned, and have faced discrimination, Mr. Taylor said.

“In my extensive travel around the Mekong Delta, I found that the Khmer Krom had suffered not only at the hands of the Vietnamese state but also at the hands of the Cambodian state.”

Mr. Taylor’s conference will start at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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