Cambodia’s Vietnamese


6 June 2019

Khmer   Vietnamese   Spanish   French   German   Dutch

Listen to this story.

Life in Cambodia for the Cambodian-Vietnamese community has been one of hardship, persecution and even genocide. Long accused of being a fifth column for neighbouring Vietnam – a group of subversive agents who attempt to undermine the nation’s solidarity – the Vietnamese who call Cambodia home do not want to leave – even if they could.

Cambodian Interior Ministry officials came to the village of Pak Nam in 2016. The agricultural community, nestled in a sharp curve of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border in Cambodia’s Kandal Province, in the floodplain of the Mekong River, is like many others on this side of the border. Simple, stilted wooden houses dot the main road, while fields of corn, chilli pepper and rice spread out behind them.

However, Pak Nam is almost exclusively home to descendants of Vietnamese migrants to what is now Cambodia. Many of them survived the genocidal years of Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1979. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) found the two surviving senior Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea guilty (pending appeal) of genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, in its judgment in March.

Finally, almost 40 years after the expulsion and killings of the Vietnamese and other ethnic groups, these actions are judged as genocide. The court decision is a critical step for dealing with the past, but the Vietnamese still face hardship and discrimination in modern Cambodia even though many of them were born in the country.

The Cambodian authorities that came to Pak Nam in 2016 collected any paperwork and documents held by the Cambodian-Vietnamese families that constituted or suggested citizenship of Cambodia: voting ID cards; the official ‘Family Books’ that Cambodians use to record births, deaths and marriages; and for those lucky few, the birth certificates that had allowed them access to services and citizenship in Cambodia. This action is repeated across Cambodia constantly.

“We had all our Cambodian paperwork taken away in 2016, including our family book, the ID cards of my parents and our voting registration cards. We felt disappointed, but there was nothing we could do. We felt unwelcome in Cambodia, and it was a surprise,” recalled Pak Nam resident, Tho. Only the first names of residents of Pak Nam have been used to protect their identity for safety reasons.

Pak Nam residents harvesting chilli. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

A women wearing a Vietnamese-style sun hat rests from the chili harvest in Pak Nam village. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

Cambodia changed its birthright citizenship in 1996 to only include children born to foreign parents who are legally staying in the country. This applies to newborns after the implementation of the amended Law on Nationality on 9 October 1996.

Born in the village to Vietnamese parents in 1984, Tho explained the new registration process that almost every family in this heavily Cambodian-Vietnamese area went through: “Vietnamese embassy officials comes [sic] with the Interior Ministry every two years to do the paperwork. We sign our names and get the [Cambodian] ID card without having to pay.”

That fee, he noted while showing off his new residence card that allows him to travel within Cambodia, is 250,000 riel, or US$60 per person over the age of 18. His account was supported by multiple Pak Nam residents and other Cambodian-Vietnamese living elsewhere in Kandal Province.

“The Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia pays the tax [fee] for everyone. Without their help it would be much harder to afford to live, especially for those with big families,” he added.

General Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesperson, confirmed that the Vietnamese authorities support the ministry in the registration process to convey official legal migrant status.

“The Vietnamese authorities used to consider that the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia should be Cambodian, but now they are supporting us in this card registration. We are happy to work with them,” he said to Global Ground Media.

However, General Sopheak denied any knowledge of a policy in which the Vietnamese embassy paid the registration fees.

“We are not aware of that,” he stated.

He went on to explain that the system of confiscating existing documents was due to widespread falsification of paperwork that had allowed non-citizens access to citizen-only services.

“[There were] many abnormal certificates and ID cards, so we have registered them to follow the laws of Cambodia. We asked them to exchange their often fake cards for official ones,” he said.

“The ID cards recognise them as legal immigrants in Cambodia, where they have to respect the law…anyone without a card is an illegal immigrant.”

Neither the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh or the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry responded to requests for comment.

The residency cards, while officially allowing families to live and travel in Cambodia, do not convey the citizenship which the birth certificates provided before they were taken away, leaving Cambodian-Vietnamese residents stateless. They are neither legally Cambodian nor Vietnamese citizens and have no passports.

While the 1996 Law on Nationality states that children born in Cambodia with at least one parent having Cambodian citizenship can obtain citizenship themselves, in practice, this has proven very difficult for families to do.

Cambodia’s border with Vietnam is still not fully demarcated, a point of contention in Cambodia amid fears of Vietnamese encroachment.

The buying of land on the Cambodian side of the border by Vietnamese firms is pointed to as one example of a legal method of this, while the installation of new border posts in contested waters by the Vietnamese navy in 2018 is held up by the Cambodian government as a more serious attempt by Vietnam to move the border.

Yet the widespread dislike and distrust of both Vietnam and the Vietnamese in Cambodia have deeper roots than the shared border, noted Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College in California, shown in the disproportionate resentment against Vietnamese compared to the Thai or Lao.

“Honestly, there’s resentment against Thailand, but it is not nearly as bad as [against] Vietnam. And Laos? Forget it, there’s [no resentment] there,” he wrote in an email.

The resentment is much more nuanced than simple anti-Vietnamese xenophobia. Poor fishing and farming communities take the brunt of public focus, and action from authorities, while wealthy urban Cambodian-Vietnamese are largely left alone; making attempts to group all ethnic Vietnamese together academically are problematic.

“There are different Vietnamese – there’s the fisherfolk, and then there’s the Phnom Penh folks, and many others in between. It’s hard to see an overall narrative that is ‘The Vietnamese in Cambodia’,” Ear explained. He added, “In fact, those who became spouses of generals and officials are very well off. Then there are certainly folks inside the Cambodian government now, who […] are ethnic Vietnamese, but speak the [Cambodian] language and have Cambodian names.”

With many Cambodian-Vietnamese communities living for generations on the fringes of Cambodian society, away from public officials and services (and not always speaking Khmer), obtaining official documentation is a logistical challenge.

Adding to that, the hundreds of thousands of people who fled from Cambodia’s violence and disruption in the 1970s saw public records and personal paperwork lost or destroyed. This has led to the exclusion of many Cambodian-Vietnamese families from formal education and health services, along with limited employment possibilities.

Chilli harvest in Pak Nam. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

Members of the Cambodian-Vietnamese community are also unable to claim Vietnamese citizenship across the border and face limited access to solid employment opportunities in Vietnam due to a lack of Vietnamese documentation, Tho explained.

“As I don’t have a Vietnamese ID, I cannot get a good job in a factory, so can only do manual work…There are no problems about working in Vietnam [in the form of labour-intensive jobs paid in cash], no hostility to us, but people do call me a Cambodian immigrant, so we are seen as different,” he said.

“It’s impossible to obtain a Vietnamese ID, as you have to have a Vietnam birth certificate.”

Even though he works in Vietnam, his children attend school in Vietnam, and Vietnamese is his family’s first language, Tho remains adamant that Cambodia is his home.

“I would say I am Vietnamese. The tax [fee] and ID card [stops] me feeling really Cambodian, but I will not leave here. I am attached to the land of my birth, my family home and my way of life,” he shared.

Vietnam’s pull

Long excluded from formal education, health and employment in Cambodia, the country’s Cambodian-Vietnamese community along the border have instead turned to Vietnam, often a short ferry ride away.

Many of the residents in Pak Nam are unable to converse easily in Khmer, a situation that is even more acute with the younger generations. Vietnamese beer brands, snacks and coffee packets are for sale in the local shops; shampoos and gels made by Vietnamese brands are in use in the village’s modest front-room hair salon; Vietnamese is the alphabet of choice for signs, calendars and mobile phones; and TVs and radios are all tuned to stations from across the border.

For 500 riel, or 3,000 dong (US$0.12), villagers can easily take the regular ferries that ply the Tonle Bassac River all day, without passing any formal border controls to enter Vietnam.

“I go to the market in Vietnam and take the [residency] card. Lots of people travel to the market, and you see lots of Cambodian number plates on motorbikes. There is no market close to here, so we have to go [to the market in Vietnam],” explained Pak Nam resident Shorn, who moved to the village in 1980 after spending six years in Vietnam after being expelled from her country of birth, Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge in 1974.

“We found small jobs to do, harvested soy to make ends meet [in Vietnam], but as soon as it was safe, we came back to Cambodia,” she recalled. While many of the expelled families returned to Cambodia, some chose to stay in Vietnam, where they continue to face the same issues of statelessness and lack of citizenship as they would in Cambodia.

“I speak Khmer well, but around here I speak much more Vietnamese. My daughter studied in Vietnam until Grade 5. She understands Khmer but can’t speak [it]. It makes me sad that she can’t speak Khmer,” she admitted.

Without birth certificates to prove citizenship, Cambodian-Vietnamese children across Cambodia have very limited access to formal education, and many parents of the Vietnamese community in Pak Nam send their children across the river into Vietnam each day for school.

Yet efforts are being made to boost educational provision on the Cambodian side of the border. A bilingual teacher who was recently hired by the small school at Pak Nam’s pagoda is providing the first formal Khmer lessons for many children in the area, explained Chan Sokha, Executive Director of the Cambodian NGO Khmer Community Development (KCD), which has long worked with children along Kandal Province’s border with Vietnam to ensure access to education for all.

“It is very important that both Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese children can share education in the Khmer school system. Through learning together, both of them can understand the [different] culture and this […] will reduce the prejudice and discrimination from the Khmer children to the Vietnamese children. If both of them are understanding, it will [allow for] good collaboration for business [purposes or] any development in their community,” she said.

A calendar in Vietnamese on the wall of Van and Lai’s house in Pak Nam village. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

Empty beer bottles from southern Vietnam, awaiting return to Vietnam for reuse. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

A Cambodian electricity bill on the wall of a Pak Nam house, some of the only Khmer script seen in the village. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

Cambodian and Vietnam currency are both accepted for the border ferries. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

Images from Buddhist history and Khmer writing, and old portraits of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany, adorn the small pagoda in Pak Nam village (this is the only “traditional Cambodian” building in the village). (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

Government primary schools in Pak Nam and Khna Tang Yu villages, both of which have large populations of Cambodian-Vietnamese residents, offer classes in Khmer for children. While NGOs such as KCD offer educational support outside of the formal education sector, the only option for many children with little or no Khmer language understanding is to continue to study in Vietnam.

Eligibility is another issue, but one that is less of a restraint near the border than in other areas, Sokha noted.

“In Prek Chrey, Pak Nam and Khna Tang Yu primary schools, it seems a bit more open, and they can access school without [Cambodian] birth certificates, but they only can access primary school, and it is an informal learning environment,” she added.

The reality for most Cambodian-Vietnamese students is that, although they call Cambodia home, they will end up working either for Vietnamese companies, or largely with fellow Vietnamese speakers, and convincing parents and students of the importance of learning Khmer is, therefore, a challenge for the KCD team, Sokha admitted.

At present, almost all of the educational, health, employment and shopping needs of residents in this border area are met in Vietnam, which is more densely populated and home to more developed services and infrastructure.

According to Cambodia’s 2008 national census (the delayed 2018 national census is due to begin in March 2019), 0.54% of respondents listed Vietnamese as their mother tongue. Of the 13.4 million Cambodian residents at the time, that would suggest at least 70,000 people identified as Vietnamese speakers.

With Cambodia’s population now at roughly 16 million, and assuming self-identified Vietnamese speakers have remained a similar percentage, that would mean a minimum of 80,000 Vietnamese-speaking residents, and possibly many more who chose to list Khmer to be less conspicuous, or were not included in the 2008 census at all.

For Pak Nam resident Shorn, the desire to live in Cambodia is strong.

“My father was Cambodian-Vietnamese, my mother Khmer, so in my heart, I am both,” she explained. Despite these legitimate claims to Cambodian citizenship under the Law on Nationality, she remains without citizenship and only has her new Cambodian residence card, which she received in 2016.

“Life here is fine. I can sell my corn in Vietnam, go to the market for shopping. Nothing is wrong,” Shorn said.

In the cornfield behind her house, the graves of her parents and other relatives, complete with Vietnamese inscriptions, highlight her attachment to the land.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else, my parents are buried here.”

Shorn’s family cemetery, behind her house in Pak Nam. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

The history that binds

Cambodia’s diverse mix of ethnic groups has helped to shape and develop the country’s rich architectural, religious and culinary landscape. While the Khmer are the most populous, highland ethnic groups and more recent Chinese, Cham and Vietnamese migrants point to Cambodia’s historic regional attraction. (The Cham are the Cambodian-Islam ethnic minority, who the ECCC also found to have been victims of Khmer Rouge genocide.)

Modern Cambodia is a product of empire. At its height in the 12th century, the Angkorian Kingdom covered an estimated 1 million square kilometres, and its capital at Angkor Wat was the most populous city in the world. Angkorian historical monuments can be found today as far away as Thailand’s border with Myanmar, across southern Vietnam, and in Laos.

The subsequent Angkorian decline, along with the expansion of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, saw these territorial claims shrink, culminating in 1863 with the designation of Cambodia as a French protectorate as part of the latter’s Indochina possessions. Large numbers of Vietnamese civil servants and bureaucrats were brought to Cambodia to assist in running French colonial affairs, and many stayed after independence from France was achieved in 1953.

In 1969, there were an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese residents in Cambodia among the country’s 7 million-strong population. Anti-Vietnamese violence in 1970, the year General Lon Nol came to power in a coup, saw the expulsion of 200,000 Vietnamese families and some 4,000 deaths by mob violence.

The defeat of Lon Nol’s government in April 1975 by the Khmer Rouge only worsened the plight of Cambodia’s Vietnamese residents. Even though the Khmer Rouge owed much of its early training and material support to their communist comrades in Vietnam, long-running hatred and suspicion quickly led to the expulsion of all, and slaughter of many, Vietnamese residents in Cambodia.

The long-awaited climax of the second part of the 2018 trial, finally found the surviving senior Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) found the two defendants guilty (pending appeal) of genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Shorn walks through the corn field behind her house leading to the burial site of her relatives. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

“In each case, Vietnamese were targeted not as individuals but based on their membership of the group and their perceived ethnicity. This happened under the umbrella of the [Khmer Rouge] policy to specifically target the Vietnamese, including civilians, as a group. Until late 1976, the Vietnamese were targeted for expulsion, from April 1977, for destruction as such,” the Trial Chamber’s Summary Judgement states.

“[T]he evil Yuon race will be wiped off the face of the earth. And we Kampucheans [Cambodians] will be a happy people.” – Pol Pot

“And now, how about the Yuon? There are no Yuon in Kampuchean territory. Formerly there were nearly 1,000,000 of them. Now there is not one seed of them to be found.” – Khmer Rouge’s Revolutionary Flag magazine, April 1978

The Khmer Rouge were deposed in early 1979 in a large-scale intervention from the Vietnamese military, aided by Khmer Rouge defectors, including current Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and other leading political figures. Between 1975 and January 1979, the population of Cambodia had dropped by an estimated 2 million people; the 20,000 murdered Vietnamese joining over 1 million Khmers, Cham and members of other ethnic groups who were killed under the Khmer Rouge due to starvation, overwork and lack of medical care.

Years of cross-border raids by Khmer Rouge forces during this period had severely tested the patience of now-unified Vietnam, and Vietnamese-led forces quickly gained control over much of Cambodia once their intervention began. However, pockets of Khmer Rouge resistance, especially along the Thai border where they received Western and Chinese support, lingered until the death of leader Pol Pot and the surrender of remaining Khmer Rouge leaders in 1998.

The return of relative normalcy to Cambodia, albeit under Vietnamese direction, led to the return of many of the Cambodian-Vietnamese families that had fled in 1975, and they were joined by many new Vietnamese migrants. The UN, which along with much of the international community did not recognise the new government in Cambodia and instead supported the mix of royalist, nationalist and Khmer Rouge groups along the Thai border, noted in a General Assembly meeting in 1983 that it was “[s]eriously concerned about reported demographic changes being imposed in [Cambodia] by foreign occupation forces.”

In the build-up to the UN-supported national elections in 1993 that followed the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in 1990, Khmer Rouge units targeted Cambodian-Vietnamese communities in Cambodia, forcing families to flee again, this time closer to the border. Between 1992 and 1993, Amnesty International noted the death of some 130 Cambodian-Vietnamese in Cambodia, and injuries to 75 more, plus an unspecified number of missing, presumed killed.

Their report highlighted the hatred and suspicion among Khmer Rouge leadership of the Vietnamese in Cambodia, quoting General Nuon Bunno in 1992: “[B]ecause the yuon […] aggressor forces are still carrying on their aggression and occupation of Cambodia, while yuon immigrants are continuing to plunder land and farms of the Cambodian people, thus acutely antagonizing the Cambodian people.”

1.Houses in Pak Nam. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)
2.Cambodian-Vietnamese residents in Pak Nam. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)
3.Houses in Pak Nam are much closer to Vietnamese designs than Cambodian. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

‘Yuon’ is the traditional Khmer word for Vietnam and Vietnamese, but it has taken on a derogatory and aggressive association in recent years and is disliked by the Cambodian-Vietnamese community. Leading contemporary Cambodian opposition figures, including party leaders of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) like Sam Rainsy (who lives in self-imposed exile in France following a number of politically-motivated charges against him and has remained a vocal critic of the government), have defended using the word, as they seek to portray the government of Hun Sen – installed when Vietnamese troops controlled Cambodia – as puppets of Hanoi, and Vietnamese residents in Cambodia as a fifth column.

Whatever the academic arguments and historical precedence for its use, the Vietnamese community in Cambodia does not approve of the word, and Pak Nam residents grew visibly agitated when asked about it.

“It’s not easy to hear the word ‘yuon.’ It sounds offensive to me. [Talking] with friends no one would say it about each other, rather we would say ‘Viet.’ But thankfully we hear ‘yuon’ said less and less now,” Tho explained.

Current village residents also reported peaceful relations with their Khmer and Cham neighbours. Indeed, much of the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric has been directed from areas removed from the border, where interactions between Vietnamese and Khmer are often limited, explained Raymond Hyma, Regional Adviser for Cambodian human rights NGO, Women Peace Makers.

“We have a lot to learn from communities that are actually living in integrated settings and exposed to those [whom we think of] as different, or as ‘the other’ in our own contexts,” he said.

“Our listening work in the communities along the Cambodia-Vietnam border challenge many of our assumptions we hold from faraway Phnom Penh, where people often see the border as a dividing issue or as a hotbed of conflict. Although we certainly do hear about negative sentiment among different ethnic groups, we also find many more examples of integration and kinship in the everyday lives of Khmer, Indigenous, ethnic Vietnamese, Cham Muslim and other communities that live side-by-side,” said Hyma. There are some 15 different ethnic groups in Cambodia.

Cambodian National Road 21B, after the Cambodian border gate. (Pak Nam, Cambodia, 9 February 2019)

Van and his wife Lai have lived in Pak Nam since 1982. Both are Cambodian-Vietnamese and spoke of their pride at growing up in Cambodia.

“The Khmer Rouge made us leave Cambodia in 1975, and we lived in Tay Ninh Province, just over the border [in Vietnam]. In 1982, we got married, and then moved back to Cambodia, to Kampong Thom, then to here,” explained Lai while looking at her family’s fields from the covered veranda of her colourfully decorated home. She was born in a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake and spent much of her childhood on the water.

“We will apply for citizenship and the correct paperwork when we are allowed [in five years]. I want to have an official nationality,” she said with a proud smile.

Her husband is equally determined to live in Cambodia: “This is where we were born. It’s where we are from. I am Cambodian. Even without the paperwork, I still feel Cambodian.”

Article by Peter Ford.
Photography by Peter Ford and Prum Bandiddh.
Editing by Mike Tatarski and Anrike Visser.
Illustrations by Imad Gebrayel.

Note 18 June 2019: The Pak Nam residents interviewed in this series of articles were all born in Cambodia, with parents or grandparents that had migrated from Vietnam, and who now find themselves in a stateless limbo. The use of ‘Cambodian-Vietnamese’ refers to such Cambodian residents who reside in Cambodia, call it home, and will not leave even if it was possible.

Taking you where others don't
Ready to make sense of foreign news?

By subscribing you agree that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing in accordance with their Privacy Policy ( and Terms (