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Vietnamese Families Leave the Tonle Sap

May Titthara / Khmer Times Share:

Ethnic Vietnamese residents of Tonle Sap Lake are continuing to head back to Vietnam in droves due to overbearing and costly rules being strictly enforced by local authorities, robbing many of them of the only homeland they have ever known.
Minority Rights Organization (MIRO) official Seorn Chumsothun said yesterday that more than 100 Vietnamese families living in Kampong Chhnang province had fled to Vietnam over the past two months.
“Since July, more than 100 Vietnamese families returned to their country by boat, and approximately 50 more families will go back,” he said.
In a report released this year, MIRO said Vietnamese residents are encountering more economic difficulty and outright human rights violations than most ethnic groups in Cambodia.
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.
Many of the families moving to Vietnam did so because they were either not allowed access to the proper legal documents allowing them to stay in Cambodia or felt that the money needed for the documents was beyond their reach.
Local authorities started asking Vietnamese residents last year for 50,000 riel (about $12.50) per family member per year for so-called “immigrant passes.”  
Despite living in Cambodia for decades, families said they were still unable to get residency and citizenship papers because they could not speak Khmer.
“What we know is that they went back to their country because it is difficult living here and they have to pay for legal services that require them to pay 250,000 riel per year. They have so many family members so they cannot afford to pay this, forcing them to leave,” Mr. Chumsothun told Khmer Times.
Last year, the large Vietnamese community of more than 1,000 families living in floating houses on the Tonle Sap were forcibly evicted and told to move inland, about three kilometers away from Psa Krom dock in Kampong Chhnang.
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 ethnically Vietnamese families who had been living in Cambodia since before the Khmer Rouge regime took over.
The fines and evictions forced the hand of Vietnamese families unable to cover the costs of staying in the area.
“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?” said Cheung Yang Ros, a resident of Tonle Sap lake since 1982.
“Because they are poor, the only way for them [to survive] is to go back to their country.”
Mr. Yang Ros sailed to Kampong Chhnang from Dong Thap province in Vietnam, passing through the Chrey Thom border gate in Kandal province’s Phsar Chhnang commune.
He and other residents have been struggling to survive since they arrived, and Mr. Yang Ros said local authorities used immigration laws to mistreat them by forcing each family to pay taxes upwards of 250,000 riel per year – a price too high for poor families surviving off of a fishing industry that they no longer have access to due to their forced eviction from the lake.
With the growing difficulties the families found in catching enough fish to cover their expenses, nearly 100 Vietnamese families sold their floating homes and traveled by boat at night through the Chrey Thom border gate to get back to Vietnam earlier this year.
“I know that there are nearly 100 families who have returned because they have no money to pay for the legal documents. I ask the authorities to do things like they did before and not take our money,” he said. “Just let us live on the water.”
In May, Mr. Yang Ros spoke to Khmer Times and showed his 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 earlier 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.”
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. Yang Ros said. “We are all human beings. We just need a decent place to live.”
Vietnamese news outlet Vietnam Net said on July 31 that thousands of Vietnamese people living in Cambodia were returning by boat, settling on Dau Tieng lake in Tay Ninh, Long An, An Giang, Dong Thap, Dong Nai and Kien Giang provinces.
But those who stayed in Cambodia are facing an uncertain future. Most have already been moved twice by the government and some may be forced to move again now that the area to which they were moved lacks jobs and basic facilities such as schools.
Deputy governor of Kampong Chhnang province Mr. Sovannarith said in May that 996 households had 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, the 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 legally 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.
According to a report from the general department of immigration released on July 4, immigration officials have deported 2,069 immigrants, 80 percent of whom were Vietnamese, from January to July.
Most were sent back once it was found that they lacked visas and legal documents allowing them to stay in the country.

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