Vietnam denies UN inquiries about alleged repression of Khmer Krom minority

The Vietnamese government has denied allegations from United Nations experts that it represses the Khmer Krom minority living in the Mekong Delta region. 

The nearly 1.3-million strong ethnic group live in a part of Vietnam that was once southeastern Cambodia, and face widespread discrimination in Vietnam and suspicion in Cambodia, where they are often perceived not as Cambodians but as Vietnamese. Scores of Khmer Krom asylum seekers reside in Thailand.

Seven special U.N. rapporteurs operating under Human Rights Council mandates sent a 16-page letter to Hanoi on Oct. 18 about information it received concerning the country’s alleged failure to recognize the right to self-determination of the Khmer Krom as an indigenous people. 

The experts said they had also received evidence of alleged violations of the group’s freedom of expression, association and religion as well as their cultural and linguistic rights and land use rights.

Concerns were also raised about Khmer Krom men detained by police and questioned for their activism, namely Duong Khai, Thach Cuong, Danh Set, Tang Thuy and Thach Rine. 

Of the five, authorities arrested and jailed Rine in October 2021 on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms” for wearing a T-shirt with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals logo. He was released in April 2022 without having had a fair trial or access to his family and lawyer, the letter said.

“While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, we are expressing our serious concern at what may constitute arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment of Khmer Krom persons with the aim of suppressing their right to freedom of expression, as well as the Khmer Krom Indigenous Peoples’ cultural and linguistic rights,” the letter said.

60 days to respond

The U.N. experts gave the Vietnamese government 60 days to respond to its concerns and explain measures and regulations that it has taken to ensure the protection and rights of the Khmer Krom as an indigenous people.

Vietnam’s permanent mission to the U.N. office in Geneva refuted the accusations in a response dated May 10. 

“The accusations stated in the Joint Communication distort the history and socioeconomic development situation with many false information about the State of Viet Nam’s policies and laws towards the ethnic minority communities in guaranteeing and promoting the rights as well as taking care of the lives of ethnic minorities, including the Khmer people,” the letter said.

“In addition, the accusations about the individuals mentioned in the Joint Communication are also untrue, stem from unofficial sources, bear heavy arbitrariness and lack objectivity,” it said.

The letter went on to say that the concept of “indigenous peoples” is not suitable with the characteristics, history of establishment and development of Vietnam’s ethnic groups.

“In other words, in Viet Nam, there is no concept of indigenous peoples,” it said.

Tran Mannrinth, a member of Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation, a human rights NGO, told Radio Free Asia that many young people from the ethnic group are discouraged from learning the Khmer language because books printed in Cambodia are not permitted in Vietnam, and  Khmer-language material printed in Vietnam is full of mistakes by the ethnic-majority Kinh authors. 

“Vietnam finds ways to deny; however, if it does not know what indigenous people are, then how could it [endorse] the U.N. declaration?,” he asked, referring to Vietnam’s vote in favor of the adoption of the U.N.’s legally nonbinding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

Tran Mannrith, who lived in Lai Hoa village with other ethnic Khmer Krom before permanently resettling in the United States in 1985, lamented the group’s loss of agricultural land to collectivization when Vietnam was reunified in 1975 and resettlement efforts that followed

“During the time of war between Vietnam and [Cambodia’s] Khmer Rouge, Khmer people living near the border in Chau Doc were forced to move to other places,” he said. “After the fall of Khmer Rouge, the displaced people were allowed home, but most of their land and property was lost to other people.”

 Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.