In the biggest demonstration at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park since it was reopened to the public in August, about 100 nationalist protesters gathered Saturday for a day of singing, dancing and fiery speeches calling for the government to protect Cambodian territory and stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the country.
The Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community (KKKC) has led a series of protests in recent months demanding the Vietnamese Embassy apologize for comments from one of its diplomats on June 6 claiming Kampuchea Krom belonged to Vietnam long before France ceded it to the country in 1949.
The group argues that Cambodia never officially gave up control of the region, now encompassing much of southern Vietnam. Historians note, however, that the area was largely unused by Cambodia for centuries, creating a power vacuum filled by Vietnam.
Seated under a yellow tent adorned with blue, yellow and red Kampuchea Krom flags, attendees Saturday listened to a host of speakers and singers who took to the stage urging the government to ensure that parts of present-day Cambodia are not lost in the same way that Kampuchea Krom was lost.
Son Soubert, president of the Human Rights Party and a leading member of the Khmer Krom community, told the crowd that current labor and migration trends in the country left it vulnerable to exploitation by its eastern neighbor.
“Today, the Kingdom of Cambodia has organized them [Vietnamese] to do business here, and they take our Khmer jobs while our Khmer people flood to Thailand, and this strategy started in the 17th century,” Mr. Soubert said.
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights lawyer, said recent government efforts to implement existing immigration laws had come too late, but could still help prevent what protesters fear most: mass immigration leading to the loss of land to Vietnam.
“We have an immigration law,” he said. “If we implement it properly, it will benefit out Khmer people and allow for the control of [foreign] people and raise revenue. If you are illegal here, either you will be sent back or fined,” he said.
Previous demonstrations led this year by the KKKC have been held outside the Vietnamese Embassy, where on August 12 protesters drew the ire of Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry for burning a Vietnamese flag.
Thach Setha, head of the KKKC, announced Saturday that the group would stage fresh demonstrations early next month if it didn’t receive an apology from the embassy for the June 6 statement.
“We will hold protests from October 1 to 5,” Mr. Setha said.
“We will use people power through the National Assembly to call on our Foreign Affairs Ministry to deal with this issue and we will go to the prime minister asking him to cut relations with [Vietnam] temporarily until it apologizes.”