Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are an estimated 400,000-700,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia.
Around 90 per cent of ethnic Vietnamese do not have birth certificates and/or identity cards.
It is difficult to get a clear picture of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, due to a lack of reliable data, and a history of genocide, persecution, forced displacement and discrimination by successive regimes and administrations.
Estimates on the number of Vietnamese-Cambodians are wide ranging. The Cambodian National Institute of Statistics’ Cambodia Socio–Economic Survey 2013 estimates ethnic Vietnamese at 0.1 per cent of the population in 2013 (14,678). These and other similar figures – previous official estimates put the population higher, at around 0.4 per cent of the population – are generally considered to be far lower than the community’s actual size. While the UN Population Fund-sponsored Cambodian Inter Censal Population Survey 2013 estimates self-identified Vietnamese mother-tongue language speakers at 0.4 per cent, researchers working on ethnic Vietnamese issues generally agree that the community numbers at least 400,000, with groups such as the NGO Minority Rights Organization (MIRO) putting them at as many as 700,000.
The number of Vietnamese-Cambodians that have been rendered stateless is also unknown. However, the evidence suggests that it is widespread, even endemic, among the population: for example, in two separate studies researching statelessness among ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia in Kampong-Chhnang province, researchers estimated that around 90 per cent did not have birth certificates and/or identity cards – a circumstance that places them at significant risk of statelessness. This is despite the fact that many of these ethnic Vietnamese communities, particularly concentrated on Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong river, have been settled in Cambodia for generations. Other such communities are found throughout the country, including Phnom Penh and the provinces bordering Vietnam.
The focus of this section will be mostly be on the issues facing ethnic Vietnamese that were residing in the country prior to 1975. While successive waves of migration from Vietnam continued, and some of these people could in the future be at risk of statelessness, this profile examines those with the strongest claims to citizenship in Cambodia.
The experience of Vietnamese-Cambodians has been shaped by historic animosity between Cambodia and Vietnam, stemming from Vietnam’s occupation and colonization of Cambodia in the 1830s that has in turn influenced Khmer xenophobic nationalism and fuelled anti-Vietnamese sentiment up to the present day.
The presence of Vietnamese in Cambodia before the 1970s can be traced into four distinct groups with different histories of migration: rice farmers that began to settle the Mekong delta in the 18th and 19th century, continuing up to the 1960s; those that staffed the French colonial administration in Phnom Penh; the fishing communities of Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong; and rubber plantation workers also brought in by the French administration. By 1970 there were around 400,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, constituting the largest minority in the country.
In 1970, military leader Lon Nol seized power of the country and began a propaganda campaign against ethnic Vietnamese to legitimize his rule. He began a process of forced repatriation for ethnic Vietnamese, despite few having remaining ties to Vietnam, resulting in the expulsion of around 200,000 to South Vietnam, the massacre of thousands of others, and prison-like detention for those who remained. In 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge seized control of the country. All minorities were perceived as a threat to the regime and targeted for extermination, yet ethnic Vietnamese were particularly reviled. The 150,000 to 200,000 ethnic Vietnamese that still remained in Cambodia in 1975 fled to Vietnam, leaving around 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese, the large majority of whom were targeted and killed.
Following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnam in 1979 and the installation of a new administration, ethnic Vietnamese who had fled the country began to return to the country. The government was prepared to facilitate the return of long-term Vietnamese-Cambodian communities, acknowledging them as a distinct category, but not explicitly as citizens. Estimates suggest that there were approximately 300,000 Vietnamese in Cambodia in the 1980s, plus many thousands of Vietnamese military personnel.
During the era of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), anti-Vietnamese sentiment intensified. The Khmer Rouge, under the auspices of the PDK with support from other political parties, called for the removal of ‘Vietnamese settlers,’ inciting violence and attacks on Vietnamese that continued throughout the 1990s, tapering off after the 1998 elections.
The new laws and regulations that were put in place in post-conflict Cambodia tended to exacerbate the situation of ethnic Vietnamese, rather than improve it. The 1993 Constitution guarantees rights and freedoms regardless of race, but it often uses the Khmer word for ‘Khmer citizen’ or ‘Khmer people’, perpetuating the notion of citizenship based on Khmer ethnicity, entrenching the status of ethnic Vietnamese as non-citizens.
The 1996 Law on Nationality continued exclusionary language that bases citizenship on Khmer ethnicity. The law allows for four means by which to acquire citizenship: birth, marriage, naturalization or another special basis like investment. In the case of naturalization, the law requires that the applicant be of ‘good behaviour’, be literate in written and spoken Khmer, and live continuously in the country for seven years from the date of receiving legal residency, among other requirements. The decision to confer citizenship under this provision rests on an administrative authority, but without a sub-decree that specifies the responsible authority or procedures, there are large gaps left in the application of the law.
Former nationality laws are also relevant, as they are legally applicable to those who were born at the time of their functioning, which includes the 1934 Nationality law under the French protectorate and the 1954 Law on Nationality under Sihanouk. Those born under the latter law have a strong claim for citizenship, as it allowed for citizenship to be conferred if only one parent was born in Cambodia, without a legal residency requirement like the current law.
Yet most ethnic Vietnamese do not have the documentation with which to prove their claims to citizenship, mostly as a result of expulsion in the 1970s, where they were forced to leave their belongings behind, and the systematic destruction of all civil registration records by the Khmer Rouge. Cambodian officials have routinely treated ethnic Vietnamese under the ‘foreign nationals’ or ‘immigrants’ category, despite their strong claims for citizenship. At the same time, their status as Vietnamese citizens is also uncertain, with significant gaps in the country’s existing legal frameworks on their claims to citizenship.
Without recognition of citizenship or supporting documentation, ethnic Vietnamese cannot access identity cards. About 10 per cent of the community studied by MIRO have identity cards, but they were largely secured through bribing officials, an option that is financially out of reach for most. In another study by MIRO, only 5 per cent of 414 ethnic Vietnamese surveyed in Takeo, Kampong Chhnang and Pursat had birth certificates. Cambodian law allows children of foreigners or immigrants living legally in the country to be issued a birth certificate, but local officials have conflated issuing birth certificates with conferring nationality: consequently ethnic Vietnamese have been prevented from registering births, thereby perpetuating statelessness for the next generation.
Without this identification, they are denied the benefits of Cambodian citizenship, living in a legally precarious position, cut off from social security safety nets. Without birth certificates, children are excluded from accessing the education system. A MIRO study found that only 9 per cent of ethnic Vietnamese in Kampong Chhnang go to state schools. Similarly they are barred from accessing healthcare and other social services. As foreigners cannot own land in Cambodia, many ethnic Vietnamese have no option but to reside in boats and floating houses on waterways. Their situation affects almost every aspect of their lives: they cannot open bank accounts or have access to legal credit options, they cannot vote, they cannot travel. Furthermore, they are prevented from accessing the judicial system or make complaints to authorities.
Without the security of citizenship or robust knowledge of the law, officials prey on ethnic Vietnamese to extort bribes. For example, many have reported being harassed by police to ‘pay taxes’ for fishing. In 2015, ethnic Vietnamese long resident in the country were reportedly being asked to pay for a bi-annual immigration fee, despite their documentation up to date. Others are arrested and jailed for a lack of identification.
Addressing the legal status of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia is of urgent concern. Ahead of elections scheduled for July 2018, amid heightened anti-Vietnamese sentiment, there are already increasingly vocal demands for deportation being made. While popular hostility and political rhetoric frequently focuses on ongoing immigration, in practice these attitudes are rooted in historical discrimination: anti-Vietnamese rhetoric rarely distinguishes between recent migrants and Vietnamese Cambodians long resident in the country.
Given the confusion and ambiguity surrounding documentation requirements for citizenship, there need to be clear guidelines and regulations around application procedures, particularly those regarding naturalization, that are consistent with international standards. The law should also be amended to include a definition of ‘stateless person’ and mechanisms to identify these persons and oversee the protection of their rights. The lack of awareness among local authorities on how to apply the laws also needs to be addressed, as does their discriminatory treatment of ethnic Vietnamese in the arbitrary application of fees or willingness to register births.
The government created a new Department of Identification in 2014 and announced a new National Plan of Identification (2017- 2026). The latter aims to improve civil registration and vital statistics, in order to have a single source of data on the population. But without capacity building of officials and provisions for being inclusive and non-discriminatory for minority populations, such initiatives, while a step towards sorting out the administrative struggles related to civil registration, will not fully address the needs of the ethnic Vietnamese.
The issue of statelessness is also playing out at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC), the international crime tribunal set up to prosecute crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. A civil party of ethnic Vietnamese is requesting ‘a project to facilitate the acquisition of Cambodian citizenship’ as part of reparations related to the ‘loss of identity’ from genocidal policies of the Khmer Rouge. While it is acknowledged that the ECCC cannot supersede national law, the project would assist with the assessment and application process. This is an innovative solution that could at least bring attention to the statelessness of the ethnic Vietnamese and its connection to historic persecution.
Beyond this, there needs to be more action on behalf of the government and its international donors to acknowledge the issue of stateless and a lack of documentation that stems from the Khmer Rouge era, and administrative inconsistencies that can be traced to the deeply rooted discrimination against ethnic Vietnamese.
Updated November 2017
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