Up to 750,000 Vietnamese people are believed to be living in Cambodia, about 5 percent of the country's population, but no one knows for sure. They are almost universally stateless. Few qualify for Cambodian citizenship.
Since land can’t be purchased without proper documents, most have settled in floating hamlets scattered on Cambodia's large rivers, where they catch fish and sell it in local markets.
Tran Anh Tuan, a 51-year-old fisherman, does precisely that in Phoum Kandal, a village of nearly 1,000 families on the Tonle Sap, where his family has been working for decades. His grandmother, he says, used to live on the river before World War II. He has never left the country, refusing to move even when the Khmer Rouge targeted the Vietnamese community in the 1970s. “They killed many over there, on the mountain,” he recalls, pointing to the lush green hills on the eastern side of the river.
But Tuan is no Cambodian citizen, or, for that matter, a Vietnamese one. “I cannot be one. Even if you stay in Vietnam for five or six years, you cannot get a citizenship there,” he says, adding that when Vietnamese people demand Cambodian papers they are usually ignored.
Cambodia's Citizenship Law stipulates that foreigners who live legally in the country can apply for citizenship, but it is hard to demonstrate legality without a proper job, which in turn requires legitimate papers. “The key word here is 'legally', for Vietnamese citizens have always been regarded as illegal,” said Sourn Butmao, the executive director of Minority Rights Organization (MIRO), a local NGO.
Legal nuances aside, today's problems are also the bitter fruits of a fraught history between Vietnam and Cambodia, with the latter perceiving itself the victim of the neighbor's encroaching power throughout recent centuries, something which causes resentment among Khmer people, who are well aware of being the descendants of one of Southeast Asia's largest empires.
Large scale violence broke out in the 1970s, when scores of Vietnamese lost their lives to the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes, or were forced to flee the country. In an article titled “Coming to Terms with the Past: Cambodia” historian Bien Kiernan has argued that the Khmer Rouge “expelled 150,000 Vietnamese residents from Cambodia, killed all 10,000 who stayed, and carried out larger, less systematic genocide against the country’s Chinese and Muslim minorities.”
The Khmer Rouge's reign ended as Vietnam invaded the country in 1979 - and many Vietnamese who had fled returned thereafter - but among Cambodians suspicions of Hanoi's have endured, with both the current government and the opposition playing on nationalist sentiments to prop up support for their parties. “In my opinion, both the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) are trying to take advantage of this situation,” Butmao said. “There is discrimination in everything, because without documents people cannot get proper jobs and their children cannot go to proper schools.”
Being perceived as foreign means ethnic Vietnamese are also unable to vote, as media reports have pointed out.
Lengthy research published by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRC) argues that violence and intimidation at the polling stations were already taking place in the early 1990s, when the country was supposedly controlled by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
“Many interviewees recalled the UNTAC times with anger and disappointment,” the authors write. “Because despite this being a significant time in which they were supposed to be able to participate in a democratic process, they were, ultimately, not only prohibited from voting on a perception of being 'foreign nationals', but their communities were subjected to violence including arbitrary killings.”
History's legacy is not lost on Phoum Kandal's residents, whose predicament is further aggravated by local authorities' recent decision to relocate their hamlet upstream from the shores of Kampong Chnnang, a nearby city, in an effort to clean the river's waters from refuse.
“The situation here is very difficult, before we were much closer to the school and the market,” said a middle aged woman who asked not to be named. Her predicament, though, is probably better than that of a nearby family, where an old, sick woman says she has basically no access to healthcare.
“I went to the hospital only once, now I cannot go because I have no money,” she said, lifting her shirt to show a patchwork of black spots and stains, likely the result of some skin disease.
Fishing on the river provides only for the family's basic needs, meaning only three of her five grandchildren manage to go to a Christian school floating on the muddy waters nearby. There, in a small floating hut, a local teacher imparts lessons in rudimentary mathematics and Vietnamese literature. Classes are all taught in Vietnamese - most locals do not speak Khmer - and the fee is 300 riels (about US$7 cents) for two hours. Even so, only 40 percent of students are able to attend, according to the teacher.
A better option would be to enroll in the government-run school on land, an institution built in 2012 and supported by MIRO, where all students are accepted. But with the village having moved upstream, the school has become expensive and the number of students attending classes has fallen from 133 to 101, says Butmao, who is cautiously optimistic about the future. “Through better awareness, the situation can change,” he argues. “But it will take a long time, maybe 10 years, or maybe 20.”