As Cambodians went to vote yesterday, more than 1,000 ethnic Vietnamese families living in floating houses in Kampong Chhnang province found themselves shunned by election officials on both sides of the border.
Chang Yang Teak, 48, who was born in Cambodia, said he wanted to vote to elect the commune chief just like other Cambodian citizens, but authorities told his family and others they did not have the right.
Mr Yang Teak is one of the last Vietnamese living in Psa Krom.
Speaking as he fixed his fishing nets, he said: “I want to vote, but the authorities say I am a Vietnamese migrant and I have no right to vote as a Cambodian citizen.
“I have to listen to the authorities because I live in their country. If they allow me to vote I am happy to go to vote because I want to know about voting.”
Even he is unsure about his national identity.
Mr Yang Teak said that in Vietnam he had no right to vote because Vietnamese authorities said he did not have the legal documents.
In Cambodia he wants to vote but Cambodian authorities said the same.
He smiled as he said: “I don’t know what to do and my family isn’t sure who we are. Both countries say my family are migrants.”
Mr Yang Teak’s family came to Cambodia in 1982, travelling by boat from Tanong district in Dong Thap province in Vietnam, via the Chrey Thom border checkpoint in Kandal province after the Pol Pot regime.
His family still use their immigration cards as legal documents to live in Cambodia.
“One person in my family has to pay 250,000 riel per year for legal immigration,” he said.
“The authorities say that in six years my family will get a Cambodian identity card, so I hope that I can vote then.”
He said that living in Cambodia, he had to listen to local authorities.
“I want to live here for my family’s happiness. I don’t want them to evict my family to somewhere else if they are angry.”
Last year, the large Vietnamese community of more than 1,000 families living in floating houses on the lake were forcibly evicted and told to move inland.
Soon they will be moved again, to a house far from the lake and the livelihoods that supported their community for decades.
Confusion swirled around the decision to evict all the families living along the lake last October, with many families unsure where exactly they were being moved to.
Chang Yang Phoeun, 75, came to live in Psa Krom before the Khmer Rouge regime. He carries an immigration card recognised by Kampong Chhnang police in 1997.
He is still applying for an immigration card from the Ministry of Interior and says he wants the right to vote because he has lived in Cambodia for a long time.
“In my whole life I have never voted, even once,” he said.
“I want to vote because I am a human being and live in society. We in the floating village want our right to vote because in Cambodia and Vietnam we have no right to vote.”
Mr Yang Phoeun said his community wanted to elect the commune chief to help their commune, because they want Vietnamese and Khmer schools in their commune.
In another floating house about five metres away lives Chroeung Yang Doeuk, who is outspoken on behalf of his community when they have a problem.
He said he and others in his community did not have Khmer identity cards. All of them wanted to vote but none of the Vietnamese in Kampong Chhnang had the right to, because people had only immigration cards recognised by the Ministry of Interior.
“I was born in Cambodia but I still use the immigration card. I really want to vote but I can’t. According to the law the authorities should recognise me as a Cambodian citizen.”
No one had come to tell them about the election.
And the government had ordered them to abandon their floating homes and move to a house 3km away. “Pity my community that we do not get any news about the election,” he said.
Mr Yang Doek said most Vietnamese in the floating village have been there since 1980 or 1982 and can speak Khmer fluently.
A report this year by the Minority Rights Organisation (MIRO) said Vietnamese residents encountered economic difficulties.
The report highlights the fact that even those born in Cambodia are still seen as immigrants or foreigners, and this presents a host of problems for many who have little or no connection with Vietnam.
Toth Kimsroy, MIRO provincial coordinator, said 54 Vietnamese with Khmer identity cards had the right to vote. More than 1,000 families in the floating village had only immigration cards and living books.
“According to the law they have to pay for immigration cards for about seven years. Then they will receive legal documents to get a Khmer identity card if the authorities think they understand Khmer culture and language.
“Those people just started to do that process in 2015.
“They have been living here since the 1980s but the slow processes of Khmer authorities mean they have no right to legal documents to become Khmer citizens.”
A woman who asked not to be named walked through the polling station in one primary school and said she had voted for the commune chief she liked and had no idea about the Vietnamese community in the floating village.
“I think even though they live in Cambodia they are Vietnamese. They should not vote. It’s only for Cambodia citizens.”