For an estimated 1 million Khmer Krom living in Cambodia, Thursday marked the 60th anniversary of the moment when their homeland in the Mekong Delta disappeared from the map at the stroke of a pen.
It was on June 4, 1949, that the French parliament transferred the territory of Cochinchina, which they had ruled as part of French Indochina, to Vietnamese administration.
Known as Kampuchea Krom, or lower Cambodia, to Khmers, the loss of the territory to Vietnam is still a highly emotive issue for many, but there is much debate as to the significance of June 4, 1949, as the date the territory was lost.
“Today is a very important day for Cambodia’s territory…. We have to join together. My father, Samdech Son Sann, usually said that if Khmer break with Khmer they will die. But when Khmer combines with Khmer they will win,” Constitutional Council member Son Soubert said Thursday at a Phnom Penh ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary.
The annual remembrance service in Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum park brought together more than 2,000 people, including a majority of Khmer Krom monks, as well as associations, parliamentarians and ordinary citizens, who still long for their native soil and hope to see it returned one day.
“This is the day the French gave away our land,” said 27-year-old Buddhist monk Pich Siha. “We want to get that land its independence.”
However, others challenge that version of history, saying that land was lost to Cambodia hundreds of years before June 4, 1949.
Henri Locard, an associate lecturer of history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and a respected scholar on Cambodia, said that Cambodians living in the region were far outnumbered by Vietnamese settlers at the time of the French transfer in 1949. According to a 1902 French census of Cochinchina, there were more than 2.6 million Vietnamese and 224,000 Khmers in the territory.
The area was undrained marshlands dotted with small fishing villages that was still unexploited by its inhabitants and slowly came under the auspices of Vietnamese settlers, he said.
“It is completely untrue,” Mr Locard said Thursday concerning the blame laid on France for the loss of the territory. “I just think the fourth of June, 1949, is not a date of any importance for Cambodia,” he said.
Mr Soubert, who comes from an old Kampuchea Krom family, denied Mr Locard’s reading of history. He said Cambodia has always laid claim to the region and that the French gave the land away for political reasons—to curry favor from the Vietnamese.
“The interpretation of these historical facts by Mr Henri Locard is rather biased and groundless,” Mr Soubert wrote in a letter Wednesday.
Expressing his respect for Mr Soubert and his desire not to enter into a debate on the issue, Mr Locard said discussion about present-day Cambodia would better serve the country.
Cambodia “should not worry about the past but rather concern itself with the present,” he said.