Kampuchea Krom: The Battles and Bargains That Left a People Behind

In his 1966 book “Les frontières du Cambodge,” political scientist Sarin Chhak introduces his section on Kampuchea Krom by saying that this region of the Mekong delta was Cambodian territory until the middle of the 17th Century, when Vietnam took advantage of Cambodia’s internal struggles to take it over. As to how this occurred, Sarin Chhak, who served on Cambodia’s negotiating team in border talks with South Vietnam in the mid-1960s, sidesteps the issue: “We don’t claim to go back in history. It seems of little use to repeat what numerous authors have reported on the topic.”

By the late 1800s, southern Vietnam had become the French territory of Cochin-China and Cambodia’s King Norodom had sought and signed the Protectorate Treaty with France. In his book, Sarin Chhak argued that France’s 1860s annexations of large portions of Kampuchea Krom to Cochin-China was an administrative decision that did not legally set borders.

And though Sarin Chhak asserted that “numerous authors” had written on the history of Kampuchea Krom, no historian has yet produced a full account of the events which led to today’s situation: a population of Cambodians estimated at more than 1 million in Vietnam’s 1999 census, but believed considerably larger, living among a population of some 83 million Vietnamese.

Ros Chantrabot, vice president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and an associate researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, said that the ranks of Cambodian historians, as in other fields, were depleted by decades of conflict and that among the very few remaining, none has concentrated on Kampuchea Krom.

The history of Kampuchea Krom, however, is but one gap in the annals of Cambodia’s history as little has been written on the period following Angkor – from the 15th until the mid-19th Century – or on whole decades of the 20th Century, Ros Chantrabot said.

Though former Kampuchea Krom residents who moved to Cambodia have written material, no comprehensive work has been compiled by a historian, he said.

This lack of scientific research has led to myths and misunderstandings that have fueled what remains a highly emotional issue for Cambodians and a continuing political minefield. Caught in the middle, the Khmer Krom have often bore the brunt of conflicts between the two countries.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kampuchea Krom Buddhist monks fleeing to Cambodia reported military raids on pagodas, arrests of clergy and the alleged killing of a head monk. These reports emerged during escalating hostilities along the border that prompted then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk to sever diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1963.

And after his 1970 coup, Lon Nol’s army massacred thousands of Vietnamese civilians residing in Cambodia, which led Vietnamese forces to kill Cambodians in southern Vietnam, Charles Meyer writes in his 1971 book “Derriere le sourire khmer,” or Behind the Khmer Smile.

For many Cambodians, Kampuchea Krom is the Khmer land that was never returned, where Cambodian people-the Khmer of lower Cambodia or Khmer Krom-live almost hostage on what is now foreign soil. Kampuchea Krom’s Khmer communities are mainly located in today’s Vietnamese provinces of Tra Vinh and Soc Trang, called Preah Trapeang and Khleang in Khmer; and in communities in the areas of Can Tho, Chau Doc and Rach Gia, respectively Prek Russey, Mort Chrouk and Kramuon Sor in Khmer.

According to a French census of 1881, the Khmer population of Cochin-China amounted at that time to 60,000 people, compared to 1.7 million Vietnamese. A 1902 French census of Cochin-China reports more than 2.6 million Vietnamese and 224,000 Khmer. This represented a sizeable portion of the total Khmer population: Cambodia’s entire population totaled 1.2 million in 1903, according to French historian Alain Forest.

The events that cost Cambodia its Mekong delta territory mainly took place in the 17th Century, a period of turmoil during which Khmer royals sought the support of either Vietnam or Siam-as Thailand was called until 1939-to fight each other for control of the throne.

In 1594, Siam sacked Lovek, which was Cambodia’s capital at the time, following Cambodian incursions on Siamese soil. In the aftermath, eight Cambodian kings succeeded each other in less than a decade, said Ros Chantrabot who has studied the period as part of the research for his recent book on 16th Century King Sdach Kan.

“There was war with Siam, and Cambodia was trying to free itself and regain its independence from Siam…and this led King Chey Chetha II to marry a Vietnamese princess,” in the early 1620s, he said. He married the daughter of Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, the lord who was ruling over Vietnam’s southern provinces from Hue.

“People always accuse King Chey Chetha II of having handed over Kampuchea Krom to the Vietnamese,” Ros Chantrabot said.

“Documents don’t get into details, but this was an international relations gesture on his part. Siam was asking for tributes, and King Chey Chetha II was looking for support to counterbalance Siam’s influence in the country-I don’t want to defend the king, but I want to defend history,” he said.

Moreover, Chey Chetha II had his own reasons for resenting Siam: During the reign of his father, King Soryo Por, he had been kept hostage in the Siamese capital.

In the 1620s, Chey Chetha II managed to push back and defeat the Siamese forces as they attempted again to invade Cambodia, says French researcher Andre Migot in his 1960 book “Les Khmers.”

During that same period, Chey Chetha II allowed Nguyen Phuc Nguyen to set up a customs post on Cambodian territory at Prey Nokor, later called Saigon and today Ho Chi Minh City. From there, Vietnamese farmers progressively settled throughout the region, Migot writes.

Between this and portions of the territory turned over to Vietnam by some Cambodian kings in exchange for their military support, Kampuchea Krom had become Vietnamese territory by the early 1700s, he writes. Vietnam’s hold on the region would become complete in 1802 after the military defeat of Champa in today’s southeast Vietnam.

Vietnam’s rapid expansion into Kampuchea Krom came as Cambodian royals embroiled themselves in epic feuds that fiction could hardly match.

In his book, Migot describes the events as follows, using accounts by Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish explorers, traders and missionaries who were in Cambodia at the time, in addition to the few Cambodian records on the period that tend to mix facts and legends.

After the death of Chey Chetha II in the late 1620s, his younger brother Prah Outey killed King Thommo Reachea II, who was the late king’s son and his own nephew, reportedly because Thommo Reachea and his wife had become lovers.

In revenge, Prince Ponhea Chan, the king’s brother, killed Prah Outey, jailed his son and had two of his grandsons tortured to death. After his coronation in the 1640s, King Ponhea Chan married a Malaysian princess and converted to Islam.

Chey Chetha II’s Vietnamese widow asked Hue to help Prah Outey’s other son, Batom Reachea, oust the king. Hue agreed and, with the help of Vietnamese troops, Batom Reachea defeated Ponhea Chan who was sent to Vietnam in a metal cage while three of his daughters took refuge in Siam.

King Batom Reachea was later killed by his nephew who forced the king’s wife to marry him, which she did only to have him assassinated five months later.

Batom Reachea’s brother, King Chey Chettha IV who seized power around 1675, stepped down but was forced to return to the throne three times to handle crises caused by royal strife. After his last abdication around 1709, his son King Thommo Reachea sought military aid from Siam, which replaced him with his relative Ang Em who offered to put Cambodia under Siamese supervision.

Similar feuds would continue for centuries while the Cambodian territory shrank to the benefit of both Vietnam and Siam. When France took over the administration of Cambodia in 1863, the country’s territory was nearly half the size it is today.

What happened under French administration is a familiar tale of business interests backed by politics in which the fate of Cambodian villagers was often paid little consideration.

Unlike Cambodia, which was a sovereign country under a protectorate treaty, Cochin-China was French territory that France had acquired through armed conflict with Vietnam. “Cochin-China was the ‘jewel in the crown’ as far as French Indochina was concerned,” said Australian historian Margaret Slocomb who has researched Cochin-China for her recent book “Colons and Coolies” on French rubber plantations in Cambodia and Vietnam.

“[Cochin-China] was a full colony and Cambodia was administratively linked to Cochin-China until 1887 when the Indochinese Union set up separate administrations,” she said in an e-mail interview.

In the 1860s, the French went about setting the border between Cambodia and Cochin-China meter by meter. Prior to their arrival, as Sarin Chhak mentions, “One must recognize…that there was no border in the modern sense of the word.”

The border tended to fluctuate according to events big and small. In one case mentioned by French administrator Jantet in an 1874 report, Cambodia’s territory expanded when a Cambodian official took over Ta Ki commune in the Vietnamese region of Ha Tien in the late 1860s and started collecting taxes from Vietnamese villagers.

Celoron de Blainville, the French administrator for Svay Rieng province, noted in a 1904 report that the French border commissions prior to 1871 were determined to put rivers on the Cochin-China side for strategic and transport reasons and, by doing so, “had deliberately sacrificed Khmer country’s economic interests…to the political and economic interests of our budding colony of Cochin-China.”

“Plantation developers, for their part, cared very little about issues like sovereignty and cultural awareness,” Slocomb said.

“A rubber planter in [Vietnam’s] Loc Ninh province even ‘pushed the border back a little’ so that he could have a perfectly symmetrical borderline-I never heard or read of instances where similar events worked to the advantage of Cambodian territory,” she said.

Some French administrators tried to curb Cochin-China businessmen’s expansionist tendencies, Slocomb said. However, she added, “Administrations were seriously understaffed and there were so many changes in the top jobs that policy was inconsistent…. [T]he French settlers, took advantage of the confusion of laws and regulations, played politics and generally thumbed their noses at the officials.”

The French were not always the ones to blame. Sarin Chhak refers in his book to the report of a French inspector Rheinart charged with planting border markers in the Cochin-Chinese area of Tay Ninh in 1870. According to the inspector, the Cambodian officials sent by King Norodom to make sure the markers were placed correctly arrived late and decided to rest at a Cambodian official’s home instead of accompanying the French team on the marker-planting operation. A minor local official alerted the king that the French inspectors had put Cambodian land on Cochin-China’s side, prompting King Norodom to protest. Cambodia got parts of the area back, but the most fertile portions of Tay Ninh province remained Cochin-China soil, Sarin Chhak writes.

Some French administrators openly took the side of Cambodians. Forest points out in his book “Le Cambodge et la colonization francaise,” that Huynh de Verneville, who was in charge of Cambodia as resident superior in the 1890s, “would constantly denounce Cochin-China’s administrative, financial or territorial encroachment.”

In her 1932 report to the governor of Cochin-China, Cambodia’s Buddhist Institute French Secretary Suzanne Karpeles deplored the fact that some French public servants viewed Cambodians as newcomers to Cochin-China rather than the region’s original inhabitants, and that Vietnamese local officials lacked respect for Khmer pagodas and imposed fees on Khmers for cremations or ceremonies.

Nine years later Cochin-China Governor Henri Georges Rivoal wrote to Indochina’s Governor General Vice Admiral Jean Decoux: “[T]hose whose minority situation and isolation make more prone to discouragement lead me to consider more urgent than ever the need to give the Khmer minority a protected status through which I hope to quickly improve their social and political situation.” But this would never be done.

By then, the Khmer Krom represented about 8 percent of the population of Cochin-China after being nearly the sole inhabitants of the region in the 17th Century. French economic historian Charles Robequain estimates that, by the late 1930s, there were approximately 326,000 Cambodians in Cochin-China, compared to nearly 4 million Vietnamese, Slocomb said.

With the exception of small areas over which Cambodia’s officials had exerted authority, the region had been under Vietnamese control since the early 1700s. Moreover, Vietnam’s hold on the region had been sanctioned by the 1846 treaty between Vietnam and Siam¸ according to Belgian historian Raoul Marc Jennar.

And yet as far back as the 1850s, Cambodia tried to re-annex Kampuchea Krom. In his 1856 letter to French Emperor Napoleon III in which he requested an alliance, King Ang Duong warned him not to take over all land in Cochin-China because parts of it belonged to Cambodia. Three years later, the king would send a small army to try to get the Chau Doc area back from the Vietnamese, but to no avail.

By the time Indochina was officially dissolved in 1954, Cambodia’s territory, estimated at 100,000 square km in 1863, had expanded to more than 180,000 square km. Kampuchea Krom, however, remained in Vietnamese hands.

In 1949, a Cambodian delegation addressed the French National Assembly as France was preparing to officially turn Cochin-China over to Vietnam, to assert Cambodia’s claim on Kampuchea Krom.

In the same year, Gaston Defferre, a French politician who would work to decolonize Africa in the mid-1950s, presented a motion to the French National Assembly calling for a referendum in Cochin-China to allow its residents to choose between having their region annexed to Cambodia or Vietnam, said Son Soubert, a member of Cambodia’s Constitutional Council who comes from an old Kampuchea Krom family.

Although Defferre’s motion was adopted, Son Soubert said, “The [French] government did not take it into consideration.” The Khmer Krom being in a minority in the region, it is uncertain whether the referendum would have changed matters.

The French government adopted the position that, since France had obtained Cochin-China from the Vietnamese court in Hue in the 1860s, the region should return to Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai in Hue.

“[Bao Dai] had abdicated in favor of [Hanoi’s communist leader] Ho Chi Minh, which the French had not accepted,” Son Soubert said. “Therefore they turned Cochin-China over to him to strengthen his power. France preferred to deal with Bao Dai after World War II.”

In 1951, Son Soubert’s father Son Sann officially reminded the French government that Cambodia reserved the right to claim Kampuchea Krom, a position which Cambodian delegates would reiterate at the dissolution of Indochina in 1954.

Again in 1961, then-Prince Sihanouk mentioned Kampuchea Krom at the UN Assembly, urging the UN to take action to defend minority populations such as the Khmer Krom.

Being under Vietnamese control for centuries did not prevent Kampuchea Krom’s Cambodians from playing a role in regional conflicts. In the early 1800s, some Khmer Krom and Cham backed the Vietnamese Emperor Gia Long during peasant revolts, Son Soubert said. “This is why he was very correct with the Cham and the Khmer Krom. His son Minh Mang [who succeeded him in 1820] however was very tough…and recognized neither the Cham nor the Khmer.”

After World War II, some Khmer Krom joined the French and the US forces against North Vietnam, Son Soubert said. “[The Khmer Krom] make very good soldiers. And when the French lost, they let us down. As the Americans did during the Vietnam War-the MIKE Force of the US Special Forces consisted of Khmer Krom.”

As stability slowly returned to Cambodia in the 1990s, border negotiations with Vietnam resumed, bringing up the matter of Kampuchea Krom.

They would take years, during which opposition leaders would criticize the CPP government’s handling of the talks. In its 2003 national election campaign, Funcinpec made border negotiations a major part of its political platform, claiming that Cambodia was losing to Vietnam huge portions of its territory and citing the case of Kampuchea Krom.

Today, ethnic Khmers in Kampuchea Krom concentrate on keeping their culture and traditions alive rather than seeking sovereign territory, said Thach Setha, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, an association of 12 Khmer Krom organizations. “We want to claim the freedom to study and keep our culture-claiming the land is up to Cambodia,” he said.

Although Cambodians are allowed to study Khmer language at their pagodas, the study of Khmer culture, history and geography is not permitted in Vietnam, Thach Setha said.

The Khmer Krom resent the restrictions put on religious practices, he said. For example Kathin-the month-long celebration held between Pchum Ben and the Water Festival around October, during which Cambodians donate to pagodas monk-robe fabric and other necessities-has been reduced to a one-day observance by the Vietnamese authorities, Thach Setha said.

About 95 percent of the Khmer Krom are farmers, usually poor ones, and 90 percent of the women are illiterate, he said. Few are business people or hold government positions, he added.

Nevertheless, Kampuchea Krom people have made major contributions to Cambodia, said US historian David Chandler. Prominent Khmer Krom have included Son Ngoc Thanh who opposed then-Prince Sihanouk’s government in the 1950s and 1960s, and Son Sann, who was prime minister in the late 1960s and a leader of resistance movements against the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s and the Vietnamese presence in the country in the 1980s, Chandler said.

An ancestor of Son Sann and Son Soubert became one of Kampuchea Krom’s heroes. In the early 1800s, Son Kouy who was a Khmer governor in the area of Tra Vinh/Preah Trapeang province was betrayed during an insurrection against the Vietnamese authorities, Son Soubert explained. The Vietnamese demanded his head in exchange for letting the Khmer Krom keep their cultural and religious traditions. Son Kouy agreed and was beheaded.

Legend has it that Son Kouy planted a tree upside down and that each time the Vietnamese tried to chop it down, their axes would break and the tree would bleed. The Khmer Krom have a saying that, as long as that tree remains standing, Kampuchea Krom will exist.

But Thach Setha said, “If there is no help, the Khmer Kampuchea Krom will lose…will disappear,” as they are being assimilated by the Vietnamese.

Is there any hope of Kampuchea Krom’s Khmer minority ever living on their own soil?

To this Son Soubert replied, “The people of Israel waited for centuries and centuries. And today, they have their own country.”

(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)

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