Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ethnic Vietnamese, some living in Cambodia for generations, see documents revoked

‘I have no feeling for Vietnam. I only live in Cambodia’
Under a controversial new plan by the Ministry of Interior, ethnic Vietnamese – some who whom have been living in Cambodia for generations – are beginning to have official documents revoked

Behind the traffic police station in Kampong Chhnang town, set against the picturesque backdrop of the Tonle Sap, immigration officials gathered thousands of ethnic Vietnamese to begin a nationwide process of revoking “improperly” issued documents this week.

The plan to review birth certificates, identity cards, passports and family books for “irregularities” was first announced in April. In October, the Immigration Department announced the process would affect at least 70,000 people, most of them members of the oft-marginalised minority group.

According to an article by government mouthpiece Fresh News on Sunday, the national policy began in Kampong Chhnang province on November 23, with provincial authorities identifying more than 10,000 people with allegedly improper documents.

Officials denied Post reporters access to the area where the documents were being reviewed yesterday, claiming a press pass was insufficient because the matter was “an international affair”.

Looking resigned after having his family book revoked, 52-year-old Bouy Nyu Lung said he was born in Cambodia to a Vietnamese mother and a Khmer father.

Like many other ethnic Vietnamese who have lived in Cambodia for multiple generations, Lung’s family fled during the Khmer Rouge regime, which targeted ethnic Vietnamese for slaughter.

Explaining that the government reissued him a “temporary” document, he said he has “no idea what the next step is”.

“I don’t know why they don’t want me to be a Cambodian citizen,” he said.

An official checks the documents of an ethinically Vietnamese villager during an immigration crackdown yesterday in Kampong Chhnang province. Heng Chivoan

While Lung is fortunate enough to also have a Vietnamese passport, many others interviewed by The Post had lost the only official documents issued them by any government yesterday.

“I don’t have a Cambodian ID card, and I’ve only ever lived here,” said Kai Thy Heang, who had also just had her family book revoked.

As is common for Vietnamese living in Cambodia, Heang does not know exactly when her family first migrated, only that her parents and grandparents were born in the Kingdom.

She and her family also fled during the Khmer Rouge but returned as soon as it was safe.

Heang said she was issued a 250,000 riel ($62.50) fine yesterday over her allegedly illegal presence in Cambodia, a sum she cannot afford.

Former Khmer Rouge tribunal lawyer Lyma Nguyen said many of these ethnic Vietnamese have a “legitimate claim to Cambodian citizenship” but simply can’t prove it. “For ethnic Vietnamese who were the descendants of long-term residents of Cambodia, who were born during the Sihanouk Regime, the 1954 Nationality Laws in Cambodia applied, and conferred citizenship to a person born in Cambodia,” she explained in an email.

“Pol Pot killed my grandparents. I just do what they want . . . I suppose if they don’t want me to live here I have to go back.”

Nguyen, who represented ethnic Vietnamese civil parties living on the Tonle Sap, said many of the victims she met “cannot prove their acquisition of citizenship, in part due to their forced relocation to Vietnam during the Pol Pot regime, after which they returned to Cambodia in the 1980s, without documentation”.

Vieng Yang Toeng, for example, was born in Cambodia in 1943. Like his parents and grandparents before him, he lived in Cambodia his entire life.

“Pol Pot killed my grandparents,” Toeng explained, adding that he and other relatives survived by fleeing temporarily to Vietnam. The only document he has after the revocation of his family book yesterday is a temporary document and a card identifying him as an “immigrant alien”.

“They don’t tell me anything, just to use this for the time being,” he said.

“I just do what they want . . . I suppose if they don’t want me to live here I have to go back.”

Toeng lives in Chong Koh, a floating village on the Tonle Sap with a large ethnic Vietnamese presence.

The community was heavily affected by the crackdown, explained Chan Tho as she guided her boat through docked houses and drifting clumps of vegetation. “They revoked my family book. They checked whether we did it properly,” Tho explained, adding she is still “not clear” about why it was revoked.

Ethnically Vietnamese fisherwoman Chan Tho pilots her boat back to her house in Chong Koh floating village in Kampong Chhnang province. Heng Chivoan

As Tho glided in between two tethered boats lined with drying strips of fish, 65-year-old Hong Hay sat on the porch of his floating house, surrounded by friends and family.

“I fled the country during the Pol Pot regime,” Hay said, joining the now familiar refrain.

“I know only that my parents were born here,” he continued, adding that he has always identified as Cambodian.

“I don’t know anything about Vietnam, I have no feeling for Vietnam. I only live here,” Hay said, echoing other residents’ confusion. “I don’t know what certificate I will be getting in the future.”

Pan Laikhean, chief of the provincial Immigration Department, confirmed that authorities have been confiscating documents for the past five days, noting officials “don’t know how many [days] it will take”, but did little to clear up uncertainty over what’s in store.

When asked what will happen to the individuals who now have no Cambodian or Vietnamese documents, he said: “We still don’t know what is next, but we have charged them 250,000 riel for staying.”

Additional reporting by Rinith Taing