The ethnic Vietnamese population in Cambodia find their citizenship at risk—sometimes, based on looks aloneby / October 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Amid the publication this week of a UN report that confirmed Myanmar security forces have forcibly driven out half a million of the nation’s Rohingya group came unsettling news from neighbouring Cambodia about plans to strip citizenship rights from its own ethnic Vietnamese minority. The Immigration Department there has announced that it will revoke documentation, including passports and national identification cards, from 70 000 individuals with ‘mistaken’ credentials.
Many of these are long-term residents, some of whom were born in Cambodia to families who also have been resident for decades past—as many as ‘four generations’, as one 55-year-old ethnic Vietnamese man, who was born in the capital of Phnom Penh, estimated. Many have never so much as visited Vietnam; they certainly do not speak the language and hold no citizenship there. Yet, just as Myanmar’s authorities have continued to claim about the Rohingya, the Cambodian government refers to them as ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants.’ Ratcheting hostility has made it clear that there is no longer a place for them in the Kingdom, despite having nowhere else to go.
Though the move may appear more restrained than Myanmar’s use of forced eviction and violence, the result for Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese minorities will be nonetheless devastating. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia already live in a state of legal limbo, in which their inability to reliably secure certain forms of documentation pushes them—literally—to the very margins of society. Unable to own land, many ethnic Vietnamese in the capital Phnom Penh live in transient housing on the last vestiges of public space: on boats, or larger homes that float or are erected on stilts over rivers, lakes and other waterways. They cannot find work with formal, salaried employers so they make a living from petty agriculture, trade or skills—such as fishing and growing crops like morning glory in the water beside their homes—or hawking food and other wares along the street.
“My biggest trouble,” one woman said, “is my son. Now he has reached the age where he can go to school. But he cannot.”
“He is six, but he hasn’t got a birth certificate yet because the officials refuse to do it because we haven’t got a family book. So he can’t enrol in the state school. This will affect his future.” Indeed, barriers to education for the children of the ethnic Vietnamese threaten to leave them trapped in this unenviable position of interlocking precarity and poverty for generations to come.
For most, their legal situation is far from clear cut and can change quickly. Some ethnic Vietnamese manage to procure residence cards, identification cards and family books—on occasion thought to be legitimate but other times knowingly frauded—through high fees or bribes paid to officials. Yet others are refused by the authorities, or risk having their documents taken away. These decisions seemingly rest on the whim of officials, who make superficial aesthetic judgements as to who should be excluded.
“The way they look is different. Also their colour.”
“When I was called to make the identification card, the official looked at me from head to toe,” one woman recounted, “and said I was Yuon”—a common derogatory term for the Vietnamese. “So I tried but I did not get the identification card.”
A village head in Phnom Penh, whose approval is required for those needing to create many types of document, confirmed that the process of screening eligibility can include appearance, explaining “the way they look is different. Also their colour.”
The resulting uncertainty generates a mute sense of terror within well-known Vietnamese quarters in the capital, where police shakedowns and round ups are a frequent occurrence. “I am afraid of being caught and sent to Vietnam,” explained one woman who was born in Phnom Penh. “Recently, many people have been caught and sent back. Those who were caught, if they have some pieces of documentation, they can be released but only if they pay money. If they don’t have documents, they cannot get out. I have heard they will be sent to Vietnam.”
This threat of deportation understandably troubles the many who have no viable contingency. “I was born in Cambodia,” stressed another woman, “so if I am sent away, where can I go? It will not only be hard to find work but hard to make any kind of living.” Here, the Cambodian government’s tactics echo those employed by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya prior to the recent and deadly escalation of violence, in which the arrest of young Rohingya men, as detailed in the UN report this week, was used to instil an inhospitable ‘climate of fear and intimidation.’
In both Cambodia and Myanmar, those on the receiving end of the persecution have found few sympathetic observers willing to denounce the attacks within their own borders. Public support in Myanmar lies largely with the security forces executing the purge against the Muslim Rohingya, driven by an upswing of Buddhist nationalism. In Cambodia, the government’s actions are likely an effort to capture the gains from a swell of populist nationalism promoted by a resurgent opposition.
Though the Cambodian National Rescue Party is on now on the brink of dissolution by the state on dubious charges of collusion to serve foreign powers, exiled former leader Sam Rainsy’s habitual explication of Cambodia’s ‘problem’ with the ‘Yuon,’ has prompted periodic assaults on the ethnic Vietnamese and helped the party to successive incremental successes in the most recent set of national and local polls. Its rise has threatened the thirty-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, with the next national elections set for July 2018.
As this date nears, the Cambodian government has stepped up efforts to shore its faltering hold on power. It has not only initiated formal steps to dissolve the opposition but closed newspapers, radio stations and rights organisations that it deems to promote critical views. As such, the already narrow democratic space in which the ethnic Vietnamese and concerned observers can object to their treatment is rapidly dwindling.
International condemnation has come too late for Myanmar’s Rohingya, despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent offer of relief. Many have already been killed or expunged from their homeland, whole villages ablaze in their wake. The international community would do well to denounce the offensive against Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese now, before any further escalation of tensions. But the problem remains of whether anyone who could act in their interest would heed these concerns, as the conciliatory appeals of the West carry less weight in light of its increasingly unilateral actions.
Myanmar has already shown its scant regard for the UN, repeatedly refusing to allow its investigators and aid from to access the troubled areas of Rakhine province to inspect the atrocities and assist those affected. Last month, Cambodian officials rejected the findings of the UN’s special rapporteur on Cambodia, who denounced the government’s recent civil rights record at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, with accusations of “cherry-picking” and “bias.” This week, Trump has withdrawn the US from UNESCO, the UN’s heritage agency, in a move that will surely weaken the perceived legitimacy of the international body in the eyes of Myanmar and Cambodia further.
The prognosis, then, for the fate of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese, as well as that of the displaced Rohingya surviving in desolate camps along the Bangladesh border, looks deeply troubling.