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Khmer Kampuchea Krom: From Justice Voyage to Memorial Initiative – Sok-Kheang Ly June 23, 2009

Posted by chandrapong007 in History, Politics.

MAGAZINE: Searching for the Truth, June 2009
 Khmer Kampuchea Krom: From Justice Voyage to Memorial Initiative
 Sok-Kheang Ly
Khmer Rouge (KR) crimes against the Cambodian people proved to be one of the worst atrocities in human history. The KR’s rule during 1975-1979 caused approximately 1.7 million people to die unnatural deaths. Among the victims, Khmer Krom were one of the groups accused of being traitorous. Many Khmer Krom families were killed off, while some survived and struggled to overcome their losses. This bitter past has plagued their entire lives, filling them with painful anger. In some cases, they have desired revenge against those who hurt them and killed their family members. However, their anger has reduced as the years have gone by.
This article will look into the historical background of the Khmer Krom, including why the KR regime policies targeted them for purges. Having suffered from a horrendously large number of killings, members of this community visiting the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) with DC-Cam were asked to reflect on these past crimes after witnessing the ongoing court proceedings against Duch, chief of the former S-21 prison. Although justice is now within their grasp, some proposed that in addition a memorial where people could hold religious ceremonies for the victims be constructed and dedicated to the Khmer Krom who died at that time.  
Background of Khmer Krom
The Khmer Kampuchea Krom, hereafter Khmer Krom or lower Khmers, live in the lower Mekong Delta but share a common race and identity as Khmer since the existence of Kok Thlork kingdom during the first century.[1] Their settlement, now in South Vietnam, was controlled by Cambodia until 14th century. However, French colonialism changed Cambodian borders by ceding the lower Mekong Delta to Vietnam in the late 19th century.[2]
Since then, there has been a large influx of Khmer Krom migrating and settling within the contemporary borders of Cambodia. During the reign of Preah Bat Monivong (1927-1941), many Khmer Krom left the Preah Trapeang province of Vietnam for Bakan district, Pursat province, after they found that area conducive for agriculture.[3] However, Meas Chanthan with the Khmer Krom name Kim Ya Thay said that even before arriving in Pursat, Khmer Krom came to Reang Sy commune, Battambang province in the 1910s and moved to Pursat only when there was a war between Cambodia and Thailand.
Both Thay and Tep Huoy, also a Khmer Krom, said that Prey Chheu Teal village, now called Rumlech village, has become a rallying point among Khmer Krom. Huoy’s parents migrated there from Tra Ving province along with another 16 Khmer Krom families. Van San, a Khmer Krom, said his ancestors also came from Tra Ving province of Vietnam to live in Kampong village in 1922. At that time, only 10 Khmer Krom families came with them but the settlement increased to 150 families by the early 1970s. There were at least two reasons for their migration: to escape the war in Vietnam and to find land for farming.
Chao Ny, an An Giang-born Khmer Krom, said that at the beginning, Khmer Krom could travel back and forth between Vietnam and Cambodia. For example, their children were sent for education in Cambodia. Chao Sao was a Khmer Krom who came to study in Cambodia and continued his doctorate degree in law in France. However, migration was restricted or cut off during the deteriorating political situation between Vietnam and Democratic Kampuchea in 1970s.[4]
In contemporary Cambodia, Khmer Krom live mostly in Pursat, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang and Takeo provinces. Many find it hard to recognize who is Khmer Krom. According to Ben Kiernan, Khmer Krom can be recognized by their accent,[5] which is different from one that is Vietnamese. DC-Cam researcher Kim Keo Kanitha, who is also a Khmer Krom, wrote that Khmer Krom could be recognized by their clothes.[6] Ny agreed with both observations. He added that Khmer Krom often have surnames such as Chao, Thach, Kim, Seun, Taing, Seung, and Tep, which makes it possible to trace their identity.
Khmer Krom: Victims of DK Policy
Although they have a common race, religion, tradition, and culture with other Khmer, Khmer Krom were targeted by the Khmer Rouge regime. DC-Cam researcher Tieng Sopheak Vichea has provided three arguments for the killings. First, Khmer Krom were accused of serving as Vietnamese spies for the Ho Chi Minh Youth Labor Party. Second, they were considered to be members of the Indochinese Freedom Solidarity Movement led by Chao Dara, better known as Field Marshal Lon Nol. Third, they were arrested and detained on suspicion of being Vietnamese spies when Khmer Rouge attacked Vietnam in 1977 and 1978.[7] So, the mistreatment stemmed from their perceived political and military involvement during the old regime. San acknowledged that many Khmer Krom did in fact serve the Lon Nol regime.
It is generally acknowledged that shortly after its total victory, the KR began to single out all former government officials, capitalists, feudalists, and many groups whom they branded as reactionary elements. Ny recalled that in 1975, Chao Sao was an early victim of the KR regime. At that time, Khieu Samphan ordered two soldiers to search for Sao. Five days later, they came across him at Prek Kdam, around 15 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. Samphan wrote a letter to ask Sao to return to Phnom Penh. However, Sao refused to return to Phnom Penh unless all evacuees were allowed to return. Then, a new order came urging him to follow, otherwise he would be killed. He was finally killed along with all his family members.
Thay said that in 1976 and 1977 many Khmer Krom who served as commune and district cadres were killed. He pointed out that at first Khmer Krom were not accused of being Vietnamese. But the situation got worse from July 1978 when the Cambodia-Vietnam war took place. The killings were aimed at Khmer Krom’s main forces, old people, women and then children.
Huoy agreed with Thay. She said Khmer Krom in Rumlech commune were screened and sent to live in Khnar Torting beginning in June 1978. The KR provided them several days to mobilize their family members to come together and work there. However, Khmer Krom family reunions were just KR political ploys aimed at exterminating them altogether at one time. The killings each time numbered from 500 to 700 people. Khmer Krom survivor Kim Sour said he escaped the killings because he had been imprisoned at Veal village. His parents did not know that he was there.
All of these interviewees observed consistently that the KR targeted them when the KR ignited a border war with Vietnam. Thay said that at first Vietnamese people were searched and killed. Later, Khmer Krom were targeted because the KR considered them to be Vietnamese or Vietnamese spies. Ny emphasized that Khmer Krom were branded as “Vietnamese heads with Khmer bodies.” In some cases they were considered to have two different brains.
San, who lost his parents and five siblings, pointed out that the killings ceased when people from the Eastern Zone were sent to Pursat province. At that time, the KR used Khmer Krom to kill the Easterners. Their turn would be next. However, with the KR toppled by Vietnamese forces in 1979, some Khmer Krom managed to survive the regime.
Kanitha, a former DC-Cam researcher specializing on Khmer Krom, has written that: “based on documents found at S-21, 40 Khmer Krom were sent there…. In 1977, eight prisoners were killed and 3 prisoners in 1978.”[8] In Rumlech village, Kanitha spoke to Prak Sarin who said that there were 500 Khmer Krom families with up to four thousand members by 1964. Sarin observed that all Khmer Krom in this village were killed off during the DK.
General Perception on Court Proceedings
All of the 130 villagers attending the Duch hearing at the ECCC with DC-Cam, especially Khmer Krom, consider themselves to be representing those who died at that time. They want to see justice delivered for Khmer Krom and all Cambodian people. A sense of satisfaction, joy, anger, sorrow and hope came to their minds as they stepped into the courtroom for the first time. Huoy and Ny said they had waited a long time to participate in and observe the court proceedings against Duch.
Thay believes that with the joint cooperation between the UN and Cambodia we can have justice from the ECCC because it will be monitored. He added that it is in accordance with the rule of law that the perpetrators be tried and sentenced for their crimes. However, he worried about influences that might put justice, fairness and independence at risk. Ny further stressed that the trial against Duch, head of notorious Tuol Sleng prison, represented the first process against Khmer Rouge leaders since 1979. This trial brought back bitter memories of what the people suffered during the regime.
Kim Sour, a Khmer Krom, said, “It reminded me of being handcuffed for three days and tortured. I was asked, ‘who are you?’ I said I am a farmer. [Then] they kept asking me about my connections. The torture caused me to fall unconscious many times. I was accused of serving as a Vietnamese spy. In fact, I was not involved in that activity. I was working for the regime in a mobile unit.” This led Sour to conclude that prison chiefs like Duch hurt prisoners in a very brutal way. As his anger ran high, he decided to join the army after 1979 in order to take revenge against those mistreated him. However his soldierly life did not make his attempt a success; rather he lost one of his legs in addition to losing all of his family members who were accused of being enemies and killed by the KR.
Observing the trial and reflecting the crimes they experienced in their communities, Huoy expressed frankly that the accused should have been placed in the same condition as prisoners during the regime. However, at the same time she said that survivors should not take up violent acts. Justice would help them refrain from participating in a new round of violence. In her view, reconciliation is a theoretical concept that we should keep in mind and turn to practice to help each individual and the whole society. San echoed Huoy by emphasizing that he felt relieved when seeing the trial. At the very least, he said, his sufferings were not ignored. Ny had no objection to San and Huoy’s views. Nevertheless, he underlined that reconciling with the tremendous losses and forced family separation is difficult. He believed that justice alone can provide relief to only 20 to 30 percent of survivors. Among the interviewees, most said that retributive justice could bring them a certain degree of closure.
Memorial for Khmer Krom
During its three years, eight months and twenty days, the DK regime claimed the lives of a huge number of human lives and brought untold sufferings on the Cambodian people. Justice for the survivors could come when the ECCC begins trying all five KR leaders in custody. Duch is the first KR leader to face the trial. Apart from justice, survivors struggle to deal with the traumatic psychological scars and mental illness. This prompts them seek out a variety of processes that could help them.
Although the regime ended thirty years ago, efforts by Khmer Krom to build a memorial dedicated to families of Khmer Krom has proven to be a time consuming task. Thay, who initiated the erection of the memorial, described how he came up with the idea. He stressed that shortly after 1979 a wooden memorial was constructed to properly preserve the remains of Khmer Krom and other victims. Later, the decaying construction threatened the victims’ remains. Then, monks attempted to protect the bones by provisionally burying them. Thay decided to rent four trucks to carry and bury the remains in Rumlech pagoda pending a new construction. Unfortunately, his plan did not get off the ground until now. The bones are under threat from natural erosion and animals such as cows and pigs that consume them.
When DC-Cam’s Living Document project invited Thay to observe the court proceedings against Duch, he took the opportunity to express his wishes for a memorial. He explained to me that the proposed memorial would play a vital role in helping Khmer Krom victims and survivors. He said that first, the Khmer Krom have a desire to express love and respect to their ancestors who were killed during the KR regime. They want their souls to rest in a safe and peaceful place. Second, it would be a meaningful and helpful process to help reduce the survivors’ trauma. Third, it could serve as an educational center to teach the younger generation to remember the past and help prevent the reoccurrence of mass atrocities.
Thay remains steadfast in making his proposal a reality. He believes that his proposed memorial, called “Rumlech Historical Memorial,” will attract the general public’s attention and generous contributions. Sour, Huoy and Ny appreciated the initiative and pointed out that the memorial will help survivors religiously, culturally and mentally. San, whose seven family members were killed, welcomed the initiative but was skeptical about its construction. San’s cautiousness is because building it requires financial contributions and political approval. For this reason, Thay called on the general public and the international community to contribute to the memorial construction in memory of all Khmer Krom who were killed during the KR regime.
Sok-Kheang Ly is the outreach coordinator of Living Document Project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. 

[1] Sopheak Vichea, Tieng, “Khmer Kampuchea Krom Prisoners,” Searching for the Truth, Issue 2, February 2000.
[2] Ciociari, John, “Khmer Krom and KR Trial,” Searching for the Truth, Issue 104, August 2008.
[3] Kim Kanitha, Keo, “Rumlech Commune: Khmer Kampuchea Krom Under KR’s Control,” Searching for the Truth, Issue 59, November 2004.
[4] Chhang Youk wrote about Nyieng Thi Leuy, Ieng Sary’s mother, Searching for the Truth, Issue 21, September 2001.
[5] Kienan, Ben, Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodian, (Yale University, 1996), p.298.
[6] Kim Kanitha, Keo, “Khmer Kampuchea Krom in the mind of Khmer Rouge,” Searching for the Truth, July 31, 2002.
[7] Sopheak Vichea, Tieng, “Khmer Kampuchea Krom Prisoners,” Searching for the Truth, Issue 2, February 2000.
[8] Kim Kanitha, Keo, “Khmer Kampuchea Krom in the mind of Khmer Rouge,” Searching for the Truth, July 31, 2002.



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