Recent Liberation Talk Worries Ethnic Khmers Worried By

Thach Roung tilts his head, straining to listen to the latest radio reports on the government investigation into the US-based Kampuchea Krom National Lib­eration Front.

News has preoccupied Thach Roung, 42, since the KKNLF emerged from obscurity in June with demands for independence for the territory occupied by ethnic Khmers in southern Vietnam and Phnom Penh’s vow to crack down on the US-based movement.

As an ethnic Khmer who left Vietnam in 1994, Thach Roung is nervous.

So, too, are his many Khmer friends from Vietnam who have made Cambodia their home, but now fear being targeted as radicals and returned to Vietnam.

“I heard on the radio the government has formed a committee to investigate. I am very scared because when they form committees in Vietnam they always make arrests,” Thach Roung said.

“We are worried we will be accused of involvement with the Kampuchea Krom front,” he said.

Cambodia’s National Police Chief Hok Lundy vowed last month to crush the KKNLF and anyone else who threatens to take up arms against the Viet­namese government.

So-called Kampuchea Krom includes most of the Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam and is home to some 12 million ethnic Khmers. The ceding of the territory to Vietnam in 1949 by the French colonial government has fueled decades of resentment in Cambodia.

Cambodian police and military officials admit the US-based KKNLF has no military capability, but the group’s e-mailed announcement that it plans to liberate southern Vietnam has re-ignited the emotional issue.

The movement’s self-proclaim­ed leader, Thach Sang—a royalist parliamentarian living in the US and no relation to Thach Roung—may be expelled from the National Assembly, and the Interior Ministry may seek his extradition from the US.

Rights workers also fear that Thach Sang’s declaration, made from the US, will prompt a crackdown on Khmer Krom people in Vietnam and Cambodia.

“I think now the Khmer Krom people will fear arrest or suppression because [Hanoi] will think they are trying to rise up in Kampuchea Krom,” said Thach Chhun Yath of the Khmer Kam­puchea Krom Human Rights Association.

It has happened before, Thach Chhun Yath said.

Ethnic Khmers were arrested in Kampuchea Krom in 1976 following the April 1975 communist victory over the government of then-South Vietnam. Arrests and imprisonment of ethnic Khmers again took place during the mid-1980s in an operation known as KC50, Kampuchea Krom rights workers said.

The arrests are still remembered with resentment by many Khmer Krom living in Cambodia. Several of those interviewed said they fled Vietnam because of poverty, inability to express their cultural rights and fear of arrest during the 1980s.

“I am afraid they will send us back to Vietnam and we will meet what we met in the past,” said Thach Phan Seoun, 44, also no relation and an ethnic Khmer from Vietnam who moved to Phnom Penh over a decade ago.

“I don’t want my children to experience that,” he said.

The exact meaning of KC50 is still unclear but it is believed to have been the code name for a plot Hanoi suspected ethnic Khmers of hatching to gain independence, the rights workers said.

Among those arrested in Vietnam was Kim Sang, the chief monk of the Theravada Buddhist Association in Kampuchea Krom, who spent five years in a reeducation camp after 1975.

He was arrested again in 1985 along with more than 1,000 ethnic Khmer monks, 2,000 ethnic Khmer government workers and 3,000 ethnic Khmer civilians, according to information published by the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Association.

Many of those arrested were tortured, including Kim Sang. He died two years later, according to the association, which claims that Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary-General Nguyen Van Linh admitted in 1989—somewhat apologetically—that the KC50 crackdown was the result of “confusion.”

Vietnam’s economic and political control over the Mekong Delta region is beyond refute, but the territory’s large ethnic Khmer population and its historically strong nationalistic ties with Cambodia have sowed seeds of suspicion in Hanoi.

Both the US-backed Lon Nol government of the early 1970s and the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime sought the return of Kampuchea Krom.

Khmer Krom have also ranked among Cambodia’s most ardent nationalists and were favored recruits by the CIA and US forces during the Vietnam War.

In June 2000, hundreds of people gathered in Phnom Penh on the anniversary of the loss of Kampuchea Krom. This year’s protest attracted some 2,000 people and more vocal criticism of Hanoi’s alleged mistreatment of its ethnic Khmer population.

Denying allegations of abuse, Hanoi condemned the commemoration ceremony and called on Phnom Penh to control future protests.

Though angry at their treatment in the past, some Khmer Krom admit that the situation has improved in recent years in southern Vietnam. Investment has increased in the Mekong Delta area, and more ethnic Khmers are finding work. Viet­namese television hosts cultural and social programs in the Cambodian language for ethnic Khmers.

Sitting in a bamboo hovel on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Thach Roung said he has lived with poverty and cultural oppression as an ethnic Khmer in southern Vietnam and doesn’t want any trouble in Cambodia.

Reports have already circulated that undercover Cambodian police officers, masquerading as KKNLF supporters, are encouraging Khmer Krom villagers in Cambodia to join the movement. Those who sign up are instantly earmarked for arrest.

“We don’t know who [KKNLF leader] Thach Sang is or if he is trying to do good or bad,” Thach Roung said.

But his movement will have few recruits in Cambodia, Thach Roung said. “I used to live in hardship in Kampuchea Krom; now I live in comfort. I don’t want oppression in this place too.”

he said.


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