Cheung Yang Ros stared out at the increasingly empty dock on Tonle Sap lake and twirled a cigarette between his fingers as his wife and grandchildren dipped slices of green mangoes into a bowl of dry chili paste and salt.
The ethnically Vietnamese family is one of the last living near Psa Krom dock in Kampong Chhnang province. 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. For Mr. Yang Ros and his family, this is only the first step in a long journey away from the only home they have ever known.
Mr. Yang Ros and his family came to Cambodia in 1982, travelling by boat from Tanong district in Dong Thap province, Vietnam, via the Chrey Thom border checkpoint. They landed in the Kandal province commune of Psa Chnang and lived in the area until last year, when the government ordered them to abandon their floating home and move to a house three kilometers away near Psa Krom dock.
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 of where exactly they were being moved before arriving in Psa Krom.
Government officials couched the evictions as a desire to “beautify” the area around Kampong Chhnang City, deputy provincial governor Sun Sovannarith told local media last year, claiming the residents of the lake were polluting it.
The evictions were slammed by human rights organizations for being callous and many said the decision had undertones of racism, due in no small part to the additional “foreigner” taxes and “immigrant” fines forced on to ethnically Vietnamese families who had been living in Cambodia since before the Khmer Rouge regime took over.
The fines and evictions led to more than 100 families giving up on the process entirely and moving back to Vietnam by boat.
“How could they live if the authority is starting to add more and more restrictions by ordering each person to pay 50,000 riel for a paper allowing immigrants to stay for one year in the country?” Mr. Yang Ros said. “Because they are poor, the only way for them [to survive] is to go back to their country.”
Looking out at the lower-than-usual brown water of the Tonle Sap, the ethnically Vietnamese residents of the area said they were bewildered by the fees, with many mentioning that they come from families who for generations have lived and worked on the lake.
“The truth is, we came to live here a long time ago, before the Khmer Rouge regime,” he added.
Even the idea that they would be classified as foreigners or immigrants is unfathomable to many Vietnamese residents, especially those who identify the lake as the only home they have ever known.
Mr. Yang Ros pulled out an old “green card” covered in plastic to show that he has lived along the Tonle Sap in Kampong Chhnang province since 1982. In 1999, he even obtained a family book.
“I have the right family book. Why do they say I’m an immigrant and order me to pay 50,000 riel a year? Why don’t they acknowledge me as a Cambodian citizen? They just started this early this year. Why wasn’t this a thing before?” Mr. Yang Ros asked.
“To get to where I am today, I had to deal with a lot of difficulties. But now, they have started to use the law to punish us without recognizing us as Cambodian citizens.”
The roar of a small boat engine echoed across the surface of the water as Mr. Yang Ros described the anguish felt by those now forced to pay the immigration fee. Most of the families living on the lake are fishermen or sell goods to fisherman, and now that they are being forced to pay the hefty immigration fee, many see no way forward in Cambodia.
“There were already about 100 families who went back to their country because they are poor and can’t afford to pay for the legal documents. So I would like to ask the authorities to not charge us for the documents as before and let us continue to live on the water,” he said. “We used to live by fishing. If we go to live on land, we will die.”
‘Live by Fishing’
Le Thi Phuc pulled out a letter given to her by the Interior Ministry saying she was a Vietnamese national and resident of Kampong Chhnang province’s Kampong Leng district. With a sadly ironic tone, she described the indignity of being forced to pay new fees while being forced out of the only livelihood she and others near her know.
Ms. Thi Phuc said the government was knowingly robbing Vietnamese and Cham lake residents of their ability to survive and support their families. She continues to beg provincial authorities to allow the lake’s current residents to continue working on the water, despite their insistence that the entire community slowly move to houses and professions on land.
“Our lives and survival depend on raising fish and fishing in the lake,” Ms. Thi Phuc said. “If we live on the mainland, [we] will die.”
The disorganization of the process has made the situation even worse. Ms. Thi Phuc said the area where the government wants to move them does not have a village chief, school or hospital nearby.
Standing next to Ms. Thi Phuc was Soy, an ethnically Vietnamese resident who has helped to lead the charge in demanding that government authorities allow people to continue living on the lake.
“We are living well in Kampong Chhnang. Why bring us to live where our children have no school. Now we are living in helplessness,” Mr. Soy said.
In December 2014, Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang led a delegation to Phnom Penh, where he asked National Assembly Chairman Heng Samrin to help take care of Vietnamese citizens living in Cambodia.
But despite the appeal, ethnically Vietnamese residents have had to endure a sustained campaign against them in Cambodia, according to human rights groups.
In a report this year by the Minority Rights Organization (MIRO), Vietnamese residents are encountering more economic difficulty and outright human rights violations. 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 to no connection to Vietnam.
Deputy governor of Kampong Chhnang province Mr. Sovannarith said that 996 households have already been moved to the area around Psa Krom dock, where they await the next step in their journey.
“For the next step, we will order them to settle on land by renting houses on plots of land by themselves. Our authorities won’t be responsible,” Mr. Sovannarith said.
Soeung Seng Karona, program manager at MIRO, said the government is lobbying the former lake residents to buy plots of land. But when many of them tried, they were told they were not allowed to own any land because they were not Cambodian citizens.
“How could they buy a house by themselves if they are still foreigners? Under the law, foreigners cannot buy houses or land for their own use,” Mr. Seng Karona said.
The unflinching criticism the government faces from the public and opposition party about any attempt to help Vietnamese residents should not stop them from doing what is right, Mr. Seng Karona said, adding that the government had a duty to respect the fundamental rights of everyone, especially those born in Cambodia, and needed to do more.
Despite helping Cambodian forces take the country back from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and throughout the 1980s, an undercurrent of simmering distrust remains between Cambodian citizens and Vietnam. This distrust has bled into how Cambodians view the rights of Vietnamese residents, and the quick-trigger criticism on anything seen as even mildly pro-Vietnamese has made the government wary of doing anything that would feed into the opposition-fueled idea that they are puppets for Vietnam.
Yet in spite of the hopelessness that many ethnically Vietnamese residents feel about their forced eviction, few believe protests or demonstrations would help their cause.
“Most of us don’t dare to openly claim anything because we are afraid of being accused of protesting,” Mr. Yan Ros said. “We are all human beings. We just need a decent place to live.”
Mr. Yang Ros and his family sit in their home along the Tonle Sap. KT/Mai Vireak
People with homes along the lake were forcibly evicted last year. KT/Mai Vireak