K Krom Mark 66 Years Since Cochinchine Pact

Some 10 months after leading protests during which Vietnamese flags were burned outside the country’s embassy in Phnom Penh, members of the Khmer Krom community took a more conciliatory approach Thursday as they marked the 66th anniversary of France’s formal splitting of Cochinchine.

Thousands of monks and laypeople packed into Wat Chas on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva Peninsula, where Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, avoided the usual rhetoric of “taking back our land” from Vietnam.

Monks bless Sisowath Pongneary Monypong, a representative of King Norodom Sihamoni, during a ceremony Thursday at Phnom Penh's Wat Chas to mark the 66th anniversary of the Kampuchea Krom provinces being formally ceded to Vietnam by colonial France. (William Kelly)
Monks bless Sisowath Pongneary Monypong, a representative of King Norodom Sihamoni, during a ceremony Thursday at Phnom Penh’s Wat Chas to mark the 66th anniversary of the Kampuchea Krom provinces being formally ceded to Vietnam by colonial France. (William Kelly)

Instead, the opposition politician invoked the prevailing “culture of dialogue” between the CNRP and CPP, asking the government to sponsor his efforts to document the history of the region back to 1949, when colonial France officially ceded Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam.

“The government should provide us the budget so we can retrieve these historical documents,” Mr. Setha said, referring to maps, contracts and other paperwork relating to the handover of what many Cambodians still believe should be Cambodian territory.

“We request about $18,000 to go again to France to collect the documents, but we would accept any budget,” Mr. Setha said, adding that he had spent a month in France earlier this year, collecting 2,231 of more than 5,000 maps and documents related to the handover.

“We want the documents so students know the history, not for discrimination.”

Khmer Krom gatherings in Cambodia often descend into racist clamor against the Vietnamese and the Cambodian government—accused by the activists of being a puppet of Hanoi—and while Thursday’s ceremony was relatively subdued, it was not free of such claims.

Mr. Setha, an adviser to deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, walked a fine line to ensure he did not breach the culture of dialogue, under which the CNRP agreed to refrain from using anti-Vietnamese insults.

However, Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of the CNRP’s steering committee, was not as reserved.

“In present day Cambodia, there are 25 Vietnamese associations to protect their national identity. If it continues, will they not lead us soon?” Prince Thomico said.

“Are we sure that inside Cambodia we have no Yuon force?” he continued, using a sometimes pejorative term for Vietnamese. “At the Defense Ministry, the Yuon are working every day and then go home to visit their country on the weekend.”

Asked about Prince Thomico’s claims, Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said such an arrangement was “impossible.”

“He has no national conscience, exaggerates and it is his intention to incite discrimination against other nationalities,” General Socheat said of Prince Thomico.

While marginalized in Cambodia, ethnic Khmer Krom in Vietnam are routinely persecuted by the communist government that restricts freedom of religion, language, culture and education.

Thach Sovandara, 26, said he fled the repression just three months ago to make a better life as a monk at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum pagoda.

Born in Kampuchea Krom, Thach Sovandara said he had become a university lecturer in Vietnam in an effort to proliferate Khmer culture, language and tradition, but had only been allowed to teach one subject in the Khmer language and did not receive a salary.

“The Yuon government warned that if we Khmer Krom talked about Cambodian culture, we would be attacked or taken to prison,” he said.

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Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed Prince Sisowath Thomico’s comments to Human Rights Party President Son Soubert.

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