Cambodia’s Ethnic Vietnamese Seek Tribunal Justice

Daniel Phan | March 15, 2012

Unable to own land, vote, or open a bank account, and subjected to regular discrimination, Ly Sokphhoung is an outsider in her own country.

Like most Yuon floating villagers living on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, Ly, whose grandparents arrived from Vietnam during the French colonial era, leads an uncertain life and struggles daily with the realities of a stateless existence.

Still her hope of the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal hearing the Maoist regime’s genocidal crimes against ethnic Vietnamese has not waned, in spite of the age of the three elderly defendants: Nuon Chea, 85, Ieng Sary, 87, and Khieu Samphan, 80.

“We’ve had it tough for so long and while there’s relative peace now, some things haven’t changed. Local authorities still discriminate and make things like obtaining nationality harder for ethnic Vietnamese,” said Ly, who lost 36 members of her family under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Without nationality, many ethnic Vietnamese living on the margins of society in Kampong Chhnang province, like Ly, are unable move to the land, denied access to financial and state health services and face paying arbitrary taxes, in addition to regular harassment and discrimination from local authorities.

Due to past displacement, many lack the relevant documentation to prove their ancestral links to Cambodia.

“You must buy it,” Ly, 62, said of acquiring nationality, which she hopes the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia will assist her with.

“For a family, it’s around $500, or $1,000 if you want to hasten the process.

“I thought that when the Khmer Rouge were ousted they would at least provide Cambodian nationality to those who returned, but after coming home life has turned out to be one without freedom and liberties.”

After the Cambodian communists seized power in 1975, Ly spent two months in a labor camp before she found herself among 150,000 Vietnamese-Cambodians forcibly evicted in exchange for much-needed basics. She returned to her birth nation in 1983, four years after Vietnamese communist forces, triumphant from their reunification of North and South Vietnam and prompted by bloody border skirmishes in 1977, overthrew the Khmer Rouge.


Official demographic reports show that the Khmer Rouge successfully eliminated the remaining 20,000 Vietnamese in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, although accounts are uncertain as some tried to hide their identity.

In seeking to “smash and sweep cleanly away Yuon enemies,” the Khmer Rouge deported them en masse before going after those who remained, which included killing children of ethnically mixed marriages. The Khmer Krom, indigenous to southern Vietnam, were also targeted for perceived association with the Yuon.

Lyma Nguyen, representing 43 ethnic Vietnamese civil parties in Case 002, said she is confident that, despite the legal complexities, there is ample evidence to convict the accused of waging genocide against the Vietnamese — charges they have denied.

“As a group, they were specifically singled out and a different crime was committed against them; the elimination of the group. The legal definition of genocide,” Nguyen said.

“They were deported en masse and some of them have seen mass executions of their families, and there are stories of the raping of Vietnamese girls, used as a punishment for just being Vietnamese,” she said.

“If the Vietnamese person in the relationship was a women, then all the children were ordered to be killed because there was this idea that the ‘Vietnamese-ness’ in a person is derived through the women because she carried their umbilical chord.”

An official radio broadcast in 1978 rallying Cambodians to exterminate the Vietnamese race and a number of equally vehement state publications attest to the regime’s intentions. But genocide, under the 1948 Geneva Convention, is notoriously difficult to prove.

And with no clear schedule as to when — or if — the tribunal will hear the charges, lawyers are managing their clients’ expectations should the court lose the race against time to pass judgement.

Transcending a verdict

Owing to the lengthy judicial process, the ECCC has so far delivered only one verdict since 2006, with the sentencing of Kaing Guek Eav (better known as Comrade Duch), whose initial commuted 19-year sentence was extended to life.

The controversy-prone tribunal, which has cost Phnom Penh and international donors about $200 million to date, has been dogged by claims of political interference. The Cambodian government, which is fiercely opposed to the potential Cases 002 and 003/004, has refused to endorse Swiss Laurent Kasper-Ansermet as the international co-investigating judge.

Lyma Nguyen, however, said she believed the ECCC could help repair race relations between Khmer and Vietnamese, in addition to finding justice for millions affected by the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rule.

The desired “longer-term outcome is that there is some understanding and appreciation from the mainstream society of the victim status of the Vietnamese” during the Khmer Rouge years, Nguyen said. “And I don’t expect that this would happen through the ECCC solely, but I think it’s one forum where this will be raised and have some positive outcomes.”

Cambodia has changed considerably since Ly Sokphhoung’s return. The scars of the past and the beleaguered social status of the ethnic Vietnamese have driven her to seek understanding.

“Wherever you live, you must develop affinity with its people, see eye-to-eye. Unfortunately, many of Khmer hardly treat us Vietnamese with any affection,” Ly said.

“But human emotions don’t discriminate: whether to a Vietnamese, Khmer or Cham. We’re all people. I never distinguish people by their ethnicity. I try to explain this to those I work for; they mostly understand me,” she added.

“Everyone accepts that if we continue fighting then this planet will one day be left with no one.”

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