By: Michele Penna

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.”