Members of the Khmer Krom community, including nearly 2,000 Buddhist monks, gathered in the capital’s Wat Botum Park Thursday morning to mark the 60th anniversary of the day France officially ceded the territory known as Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam on June 4, 1949.
But the ceremony was almost brought to an unexpected end the night before when officials at the Ministry of Culture told organizers they could not use the scheduled site, Chaktomuk Conference Hall.
Ang Chanrith, head of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organization, said organizers were informed between 11 pm and midnight Wednesday that they could no longer host their observance at the riverfront center. He said the late-night notice sent planners scrambling to find a new location. The more than hour-long service was eventually held at the public park under two large tents with the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument looming in the background.
Members of the Khmer Krom community said they viewed the last-minute change as an attempt to disrupt the gathering before it even began.
“They should have informed us beforehand,” said Son Soubert, a member of the Constitutional Council and a Khmer Krom. “I don’t think it is correct. It is a trick to jeopardize the meeting.”
Culture Ministry Secretary of State Chuch Phoeurn said he was unaware of the issue but added that the conference hall has suffered problems with its infrastructure and is in need of renovations.
“There is a problem with the electric system, water supply and air conditioner. So we could not rent this building to them to avoid the criticism of the government when they use it and then some of the systems inside the building do not work,” he said of the iconic center, which hosted the opening ceremony for the Asean-European Union ministerial meeting just last week.
A man answering Culture Minister Him Chhem’s phone said he was too busy to comment.
Besides commemorating history, the event also served as a chance to highlight the plight of the Khmer Krom community.
According to a recent survey by the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community group, roughly 40 percent of Khmer Krom living in Cambodia do not have Cambodian identification cards and have experienced difficulties when they try to obtain them.
The survey found that many Khmer Krom encountered harassment or delays from officials while attempting to gain their ID cards.
“If they want ID cards they have to pay authorities at least $20, or sometimes the authorities ask them to change their name or place of birth,” the group’s Executive Director Thach Setha said Tuesday.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday that there is no charge for obtaining a national identification card regardless of who is requesting one. He said if certain members of the Khmer Krom community are having difficulties getting identity papers, they should consult with those Khmer Krom who already hold Cambodian identification cards for advice.
“It is very simple,” he said of the application process. “The rest can explain the process to the remaining ones.”