With a smile, 62-year-old Sreng Talong remembers being deported from his home country. The expulsion saved his life. It was in late 1975, a few months after the Khmer Rouge had taken power in Cambodia, and the ultra-Maoist regime was sending ethnic Vietnamese, such as Sreng Talong, to neighbouring Vietnam.

“I saw so many people die during the Pol Pot regime era that I was really happy to be sent out,” he says.

The Khmer Rouge oversaw one of the largest genocides of the 20th century: an estimated two million of Cambodia’s seven million people died at their hands, from execution, starvation, overwork and disease. In this murderous utopia, the ruling communists were obsessed with racial purity and persecuted those who were not deemed to be “real Khmers”. Nearly all of the estimated 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese who were not fortunate enough to be deported died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Sreng Talong’s younger sister and older brother were among the victims. Nine other members of his family, including his father, had been killed by the communist guerrillas between 1970 and 1975, before they took power.

Like many others, Sreng Talong lost all proof of his Cambodian origins during his deportation. When he returned, in 1981, to the land where he, his parents and his grandparents were born, Sreng Talong was considered an illegal immigrant – and he still is. Later, he tried to buy a house in Kampong Chhnang, the central Cambodian province in which he was born.

“I had enough money but they didn’t allow me to buy it because I didn’t have papers,” he says.

The law restricts ownership of land to Cambodian citizens but, when it comes to water, there are no such regulations. So the ethnic Vietnamese started flocking to the lakes and rivers, building houses on wooden platforms tied to bamboo rafts. Many already knew how to survive on water as they had worked as fishermen in the years when Cambodia was a French protectorate.


Today, about 90 per cent of the estimated 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia dwell in floating villages, mainly on Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. Phum Kandal, where Sreng Talong lives, is one of those villages. It is the rainy season and the 400 houses in Phum Kandal are squeezed together, rocking on the water during a storm. When the rain stops, small boats float back out onto the liquid streets, their occupants going door to door, selling food, sweets and vegetables. Many houses are connected to the shore, just a few metres away, by power cables that hang off fragile sticks stuck into the ground. Sometimes the cables fall into the water, electrocuting swimmers unfortunate enough to be nearby.

Sreng Talong’s home is slightly bigger than most in the village. The main platform, where he and his wife sleep, is connected to a separate floating structure that supports the kitchen and which has a palm-leaf roof. A small, wooden hatchway close to the stove leads down to the main source of Sreng Talong’s income: a pond built under the house, in which he raises fish to sell at a market on land.

“We used to go to fish in the lake, but we don’t do it anymore, as police ask us for money,” he explains.

Unable to prove they are in Cambodia legally, ethnic Vietnamese are subjected to arbitrary taxes, especially when they go fishing (that costs 500 riels [HK$1] a time). Because of this, most residents of floating houses have built fish ponds, for which they have to pay about 10,000 riels per year to the authorities. The reason for this tax, locals say, is unclear.

According to the Minority Rights Organisation, an NGO working with Cambodia’s stateless residents, only 10 per cent of the ethnic Vietnamese here have any documentation (i.e. birth registration or identity card) that proves a tie to the country.

Until 1996, Cambodian law allowed some non-Khmer couples – of which at least one spouse had been born in Cambodia – living in the country to register their children as citizens. But, that year, the law was tightened so that both parents had to have been born on Cambodian soil and living there legally when their offspring were born. The changes have made it even harder for the ethnic Vietnamese to gain citizenship.

“I had enough money but they didn’t allow me to buy it because I didn’t have papers,” he says.

The law restricts ownership of land to Cambodian citizens but, when it comes to water, there are no such regulations. So the ethnic Vietnamese started flocking to the lakes and rivers, building houses on wooden platforms tied to bamboo rafts. Many already knew how to survive on water as they had worked as fishermen in the years when Cambodia was a French protectorate.

Today, about 90 per cent of the estimated 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia dwell in floating villages, mainly on Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake.


Phum Kandal, where Sreng Talong lives, is one of those villages. It is the rainy season and the 400 houses in Phum Kandal are squeezed together, rocking on the water during a storm. When the rain stops, small boats float back out onto the liquid streets, their occupants going door to door, selling food, sweets and vegetables. Many houses are connected to the shore, just a few metres away, by power cables that hang off fragile sticks stuck into the ground. Sometimes the cables fall into the water, electrocuting swimmers unfortunate enough to be nearby.

Sreng Talong’s home is slightly bigger than most in the village. The main platform, where he and his wife sleep, is connected to a separate floating structure that supports the kitchen and which has a palm-leaf roof. A small, wooden hatchway close to the stove leads down to the main source of Sreng Talong’s income: a pond built under the house, in which he raises fish to sell at a market on land.

“We used to go to fish in the lake, but we don’t do it anymore, as police ask us for money,” he explains.

Unable to prove they are in Cambodia legally, ethnic Vietnamese are subjected to arbitrary taxes, especially when they go fishing (that costs 500 riels [HK$1] a time). Because of this, most residents of floating houses have built fish ponds, for which they have to pay about 10,000 riels per year to the authorities. The reason for this tax, locals say, is unclear.

According to the Minority Rights Organisation, an NGO working with Cambodia’s stateless residents, only 10 per cent of the ethnic Vietnamese here have any documentation (i.e. birth registration or identity card) that proves a tie to the country.

Until 1996, Cambodian law allowed some non-Khmer couples – of which at least one spouse had been born in Cambodia – living in the country to register their children as citizens. But, that year, the law was tightened so that both parents had to have been born on Cambodian soil and living there legally when their offspring were born. The changes have made it even harder for the ethnic Vietnamese to gain citizenship.

“[Without citizenship] they cannot have identity cards, send their children to school, open a bank account or find a proper job,” says Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Minority Rights Organisation.

Access to citizenship in Vietnam seems easier. Vietnamese laws recognise as citizens those born to a Vietnamese mother or father and leave the door open to stateless persons living permanently in the country. But most of the stateless Vietnamese here consider Cambodia their homeland and want to stay close to the graves of their ancestors. That is the case with Sreng Talong. Three generations of his family were born in Cambodia, although he cannot prove it.

“If I could live on [land], if I had rights, I would live better,” says Sreng Talong, standing beside a photo of his wife dressed in an  áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese costume. “The only thing I want in this life is citizenship. This is also my land.”

The issue is especially sensitive because Cambodia and Vietnam have for centuries been fighting over land such as the Mekong Delta, called Kampuchea Krom by Cambodians, which is now part of Vietnam. 

In 1863, Cambodia signed a protectorate treaty with France. Paris viewed Cambodia merely as a buffer to shield its more important colony of Vietnam and started importing Vietnamese to fill coveted positions in the administration. 

Tensions soared in the 1970s, when Cambodian General Lon Nol staged a coup d’état with the help of the United States. With the Vietnam war as a backdrop, the new regime spread political propaganda maligning the ethnic Vietnamese, thousands of whom were persecuted and killed by racist mobs. The Khmer Rouge intensified this policy and eliminated all minorities in the country.

Many ethnic Vietnamese returned when Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979, occupying the country for the next 10 years.

Ngoc Ann, 60, is one of Phum Kandal’s poorest residents. His income comes exclusively from fishing, but the authorities limit the number of fish that can be caught between March and November, to allow for reproduction. His family struggles during those months. 

There is a big problem with identity among ethnic-Vietnamese. They don't know where they belong because they are rejected everywhere

Most of the houses in the village are connected to the power grid but his floating dwelling has only a battery to power a small light on the large front porch, which serves as a cool, open-air bedroom, living room and storage place for fishing nets. Eight people live in the small structure, including Ngoc Ann’s granddaughter, Yim My, who was born three months ago. Her mother delivered the baby on the porch, with the help of a local midwife.

Access to health care remains limited in Cambodia, a country in which 20.5 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. In the floating villages, health care is almost non-existent because fishermen cannot afford to visit the closest clinics, which are on land.

In its  2014 report on Cambodia, the World Health Organisation observed “a significant improvement in the health status of the population” in recent years, but “inequity still persists between rural and urban areas, as well as among different socio-economic groups, including women, the poor, migrant workers, unregistered population and ethnic minorities”.

With what little money he has, Ngoc Ann can rely only on the medicine sold locally by an old lady to relieve his aches and fight dengue fever, which broke out for the first time in the village last year.

A lack of money will also cause little Yim My to remain unregistered. Birth registration is supposed to be free in Cambodia but ethnic Vietnamese claim the authorities make them pay about 10,000 riels to issue the paperwork. 

“We earn only enough for food; nothing else,” says Ngoc Ann.

Registration could, nevertheless, be vital in the quest to gain citizenship, proving that at least one generation has been born in Cambodia. However, having the money to bribe the authorities is not enough.


“Sometimes they are arbitrarily denied,” says Ang Chanrith.

Most of the children who are taught by Lien Chantha  exist in the same limbo. Lien Chantha’s school is not legal and  receives no financial support from the government. Parents  here pay about 17,000 riels a month for their children to study Khmer and Vietnamese.

The fee is similar to the small bribes Khmer students give to public school teachers to attend lessons or pass exams.

“The children only stay one year here, enough to learn to read, write and some basic maths. After that, they go fishing with their parents,” he says.

“We waive the fees for the poorest families but even so not all of them come to school,” says Lien Chantha.

Lien Chantha  has had no teacher training; he is just the person with the highest level of education in the village, having studied until grade 9 (lower secondary education) in a public school. Deciding to use his limited skills to help his community, he turned his house into a school in 2006.

It is now one of the biggest structures in the village. A whiteboard with Khmer and Vietnamese words on it dominates the main room. Desks sit in two rows and 180 students squeeze together, repeating every word Lien Chantha says. Many of them are wearing an orange life jacket.

“I’m obsessed with the idea that one of them might fall into the water and drown,” he says.

Tai Tong, 69, is the oldest person in the village. The son of a  fisherman, he was born in Phum Kandal during the French protectorate era and, like most of the elderly in the village, left Cambodia only once, when he was forced out by the Khmer Rouge. 

“First, they made me work in the construction of a dam. It was very hard work and we barely had food,” he recalls. His oldest son succumbed to starvation in the early days of communist rule. A few months later, Tai Tong was sent to Vietnam with “4,000 or 5,000 other people”.

Most of these deportees spent time at refugee camps on the Vietnam-Cambodia border, before being moved on to cities such as Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese authorities tried to reintegrate the new arrivals, initially providing financial assistance, but often employment was scarce and, generally, only those with families in Vietnam, or women who married a local, managed to settle.


When Tai Tong was allowed to return to the land of his ancestors, in 1983, he decided to never leave again, not even when resentment bubbled over and triggered the killing of at least 116 ethnic Vietnamese between July 1992 and August 1993. 

“I feel Cambodian but there is a huge discrimination. We deserve citizenship,” says Tai Tong.

“There is a big problem with identity among ethnic Vietnamese. They don’t know where they belong because they are rejected everywhere,” says Yuon Sarath, programme manager at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation, one of the few mental health groups in Cambodia. 
 

TAI TONG WAS ONE OF THE first people in the village to realise the Khmer Rouge Tribunal could present an opportunity for the stateless Vietnamese.

Officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the court is judging crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime and, last month, it opened a case that will investigate, among other acts, the genocide committed against Vietnamese.

This is the third trial undertaken by the tribunal and the second against Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. After their first, which lasted three years, the pair were last month sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity.

The returnees have been permitted to join the new trial as civil parties, as Tai Tong has done, and they want to use any reparations that result as proof that they were once Cambodian citizens.

“Their reparation request is framed around the loss of identity resulting from crimes committed pursuant to genocidal policies aimed at eliminating an ethnic group based on its ethnic identity,” says Lyma Nguyen, an International Civil Party lawyer representing ethnic-Vietnamese civil parties at the tribunal. “In particular, loss of identification documents and the resulting adverse treatment as immigrants in a country they consider to be their home.


“The tribunal cannot award citizenship to individuals, because this is in the domain of the executive government. But the declaration of harm by the tribunal … can certainly move this issue forward,” says Lyma Nguyen.

For years, the Cambodian government has shown no willingness to change its policy towards stateless minorities. Nevertheless, last April, it announced the creation of two departments in the Ministry of Interior to control immigration and the issuance of identity documents. The move was welcomed by NGOs but the new departments have remained inactive. 

For the time being stateless persons “have to follow the law and that means they may need proof of their origin in order to apply for citizenship”, says an official, who asks to remain anonymous.

Meanwhile, both the government and its opposition have agreed to carry out a census on the ethnic Vietnamese to collect further information about their legal status and living conditions.

Resentment against the yuon, a derogatory term used for Vietnamese in Cambodia, has been increasing over the past year. An ethnic-Vietnamese man was beaten to death by a mob in February after a traffic accident in the capital, Phnom Penh. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party made anti-Vietnamese sentiment a central issue of its campaign during last July’s election – and it nearly doubled the number of seats it has in parliament.

“We are very concerned about the situation because tension is rising. We fear that the attacks may increase,” says Ang Chanrith. 

Time is also working against the ethnic Vietnamese. It is expected the trial will last at least two years, and Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are octogenarians in poor health. If they die before a verdict is reached or are declared unfit by the tribunal, the efforts made by the victims would all have been for nothing.

And they would be condemned indefinitely to their floating limbo.