Apr 20, 2021

Khmer Krom: Activist arrested for distributing UN declaration on indigenous people

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) is calling on the international community to condemn the authorities responsible for the arrest and detention of a Khmer Krom human rights defender whose home was raided, and who was arrested and detained, for the possession and dissemination of information related to the United Nations Declaration on the RIghts of Indigenous Peoples. The government of Vietnam refuses to recognize the existance of indigenous communities, such as the Khmer Krom. While the actions were carried out by authorities in southern Vietnam’s Dong Nai province, they represent the latest in a series of actions by the government of Vietnam to repress those seeking the protection of human rights of the Khmer Krom people.

Beyond Vietnam, governments around the world are working to criminalize self-determination activists from indigenous communities. This case is indicative of dangers that indigenous communities face when seeking recognition and respect for their rights and of a general trend away from recognition that peace and sustainable development can only be acheived through societies that recognize and respect diversity and strive towards inclusivity.

The following article on the case was published by Radio Free Asia on 14 April 2021.

Vietnamese Authorities Detain Ethnic Khmer Krom Publisher of Book on Indigenous Rights

Yoeung Kaiy said police raided his home without a warrant and confiscated 100 copies of the guide.

Authorities in southern Vietnam’s Dong Nai province arrested and later released an ethnic Khmer Krom youth and labor activist after he released a book about indigenous rights, drawing condemnation from a Khmer Krom advocacy group.

Yoeung Kaiy said in a post to his Facebook account following his release on Wednesday morning that he had been arrested a day earlier by “around 100 police officers” who raided his home allegedly without a warrant and confiscated some 100 books detailing the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, his cellphone, and his computer.

He said the police returned his cellphone and computer but kept the books and charged him with “publishing without permission” and “tax evasion.”

RFA’s Khmer Service was unable to reach Yoeung Kaiy on Wednesday for further comment but he told the Khmer Krom News outlet that despite his release he remains concerned about his security.

Yoeung Kaiy’s father told RFA on Tuesday that his son had been arrested “because of his activism” and discrimination by Vietnamese authorities. He said that his son has advocated for better working conditions for Khmer Krom workers in Vietnam.

The Khmer Krom—ethnic Khmer who live in what was historically southeastern Cambodia, but now controlled by Vietnam—face serious restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, information, and movement in Vietnam, despite being recognized as one of 53 ethnic minorities in the country, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

The Vietnamese government has banned Khmer Krom human rights publications and tightly controls the practice of Theravada Buddhism by the minority group, which sees the religion as a foundation of their distinct culture and ethnic identity. 

‘Contrary to international obligations’

Venerable Son Yoeng Ratana, information department director for the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation rights group, condemned Yoeung Kaiy’s arrest, which he said was ordered because authorities in Vietnam want to bar Khmer Krom from advocating for self-determination.

“This arrest is very unjust for Khmer Krom people because the young man simply disseminated the U.N.’s declaration on indigenous rights, which Vietnam has recognized,” he said.

“The Vietnamese authorities acted contrary to their international obligations. This shows they are continuing to abuse the human rights of Khmer Krom, who are an indigenous people.”

Yoeung Kaiy had recently launched a Facebook page to educate Khmer Krom workers on their labor rights. He also provides pro bono advice to Khmer Krom involved in labor disputes and hopes to set up unions for Khmer Krom factory workers.

Yoeung Kaiy told RFA in March that Khmer Krom workers in Vietnam were being forced to work overtime and refused time off for Khmer national holidays such as the Khmer New Year and the Pchum Ben Festival.

To date, the governments of only two of the 21 provinces Vietnam has claimed from Cambodia since the 17th century allow Khmer Krom workers to take days off during the Khmer New Year.

More recently, Yoeung Kaiy told RFA that that he has been regularly followed by Vietnamese authorities demanding that he stop his advocacy on behalf of the Khmer Krom and assaulted when he refused.

“When we express our views, they threatened to imprison us,” he said.

Recent harassment

At least three Khmer Krom youths were recently fined up to U.S. $300 for posting comments on Facebook about their indigenous history.

Another Khmer Krom youth, To Hoang Chhuong, was fined U.S. $300 for wearing a T-shirt marking the anniversary of the loss of Khmer territory to Vietnam. He recently told RFA that he plans to publish a guide to self-determination and distribute it for free to members of his ethnic minority.

“I am disseminating information on indigenous rights to raise awareness among the Khmer Krom of the laws governing indigenous people,” he said.

The latest harassment follows a March 29 raid by Vietnamese authorities on the printing house of a Khmer Krom man named Thach Sang who had created T-shirts declaring the ethnic group’s support for International Women’s Day on March 8, based on a customer’s order.

Thach Sang told RFA that he is seeking intervention from NGOs and human rights groups against the authorities, whose actions he said had disrupted his business.

“This was a threat and they tried to force me to ‘accept my mistakes,’” he said, noting that police demanded that he thumbprint a document at the time of the raid, but did not allow him to read it, so he refused to do so.