Son Chengchon hasn’t been home in 15 years. In 2007, he was jailed in the Vietnamese territory that Cambodians call Kampuchea Krom after leading demonstrations there against the arrest of a local monk.
Chengchon too was a monk then, and had organized a demonstration with more than 40 others in front of a police station. “When the authorities asked why there was a protest, I raised our rights, but they said we were disturbing the order,” Chengchon recalled this April.
The protest worked: After four hours, local monk Thach Thorn, who had been arrested for distributing videos, photos and bulletins of the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation, was released, Chengchon recounted.
It was a tense period in the Mekong delta territory, where millions with Khmer heritage live in an uneasy position under the Vietnamese state. Ethnic Khmer residents contended at the time that Vietnamese authorities were suppressing their culture and language, including alleged beatings for reading Khmer materials.
Chengchon was not spared after his protest in 2007. After an investigation that took several days, he and a friend were arrested as the protest’s leaders. He was held for several months before being defrocked and released.
Chengchon said he continued to be monitored by authorities even after he was freed, and after moving around Vietnam and finding no respite, he snuck into Cambodia’s Takeo province under the cover of darkness.
Doeung Vichey also left Vietnam in the middle of the night, without a passport.
Born in the Kampuchea Krom district known in Vietnamese as Soc Trang, and in Khmer as Khleang, Vichey began to study at a Khmer pagoda at the age of 13. Within three years, he had decided to stay on and become a monk.
The decision was born of his disappointment while a teenager that despite his Khmer heritage, he couldn’t read Khmer, Vichey said.
“I loved Khmer literature, but, I don’t know, I felt broken as a Khmer child not knowing the Khmer language,” he said.
Before joining the pagoda, Vichey had studied until the equivalent of Grade 6 at a government school, where all learning was in Vietnamese. Higher education had some courses in Pali and Khmer literature, but Vietnamese education left him feeling unfulfilled, Vichey said.
Feeling under pressure at the pagoda at the hands of Vietnamese authorities, he decided to leave for Cambodia, crossing into Kampot province at night. He was afraid that he would be caught and arrested, but he was resolute that he would study in Cambodia and bring back knowledge to foster Khmer culture and traditions in Kampuchea Krom.
He entered Cambodia in 2008, and felt that his stress had lifted. “When I first arrived in Cambodia, I was happy to see the Khmer script everywhere,” he said.
The year of 1949 — when Cambodia was in the midst of gaining independence from France — is the moment when, for Kampuchea Krom advocates, the colonizer inappropriately handed the southern Mekong delta territory to Vietnam rather than Cambodia. Marking its 70th anniversary three years ago, some advocates mourned the loss of the land for Cambodia and how, over time, “the place filled with Yuon,” using a term for Vietnamese that is considered derogatory.
Ethnic Khmers have alleged persecution of the ethnic Khmer and Theravada Buddhist minority in the decades since. In the 1950s and 1960s, monks who fled to Cambodia claimed there had been raids on pagodas, while the 1970s saw massacres of Vietnamese civilians in Cambodia and retaliatory killings of Cambodians in southern Vietnam, according to scholars.
Ethnic Khmer people say Vietnamese authorities have been suppressing their culture and language, leading to rising tensions around 2007 and repeated protests by monks. Human Rights Watch has warned of potentially severe reprisals for any dissident Khmer Krom monks in Cambodia returning to Vietnam.
The Khmer Krom population has been estimated around 1.3 million — though advocates have put the number closer to 7 million. Cultural markers, such as names, religion and language, are said to be on the decline.
The contentious history has become a lightning rod in Cambodian domestic politics, and has motivated impassioned advocacy: Thach Setha, the Candlelight Party’s vice president, led the Khmers Kampuchea Krom Association, while anti-Vietnamese sentiment going beyond the plight of Khmer people in Kampuchea Krom has permeated opposition rhetoric.
When Vichey first arrived to Cambodia, he faced discrimination from some who considered him Vietnamese, he said.
But he found a home at Wat Neakvoan in Phnom Penh, known for its resident Khmer Krom population, and gained entry to the prestigious Preah Soramarith Buddhist school, ranking sixth out of more than 1,000 applicants in the entrance exam, he said.
He pursued a law degree, believing that he needed to understand rights and freedoms in order to help guide Khmer Krom people to protest human rights violations. He then continued his learning at Pannasastra University, studying business management in order to use his knowledge to help Khmer Krom people economically; they were poorer than their Vietnamese neighbors despite having land and working hard on their farms, Vichey said.
“In my life as a student, no matter how difficult, I must struggle to help the Khmer Krom,” he said.
He needed to develop the abilities of Khmer people in Vietnam, and only then would the state respect their freedoms and rights, Vichey said. He wants to return to Kampuchea Krom to teach children and youth about history, geography, literature and Buddhism, and to know themselves and decide their own destiny.
But for now, he works as a member of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Students Union in Cambodia to help Khmer Krom monks study here and in Thailand on at least 30 scholarships handed out a year. He doesn’t believe he can safely return to Vietnam at present.
Sitting at his Phnom Penh house in April, Chengchon, the former protester, said he also missed his homeland, but he wasn’t willing to give up his work advocating for the preservation of the Khmer identity in Vietnam.
He works from his house, writing articles that he posts to Facebook. He communicates with various people online, by phone, and via interlocutors to write about “information related to Vietnamese authorities persecuting the Khmer Krom people,” Chengchon said.
“The reason I became a journalist is that in Kampuchea Krom, the media is not independent. It only publishes the policies of the party and the state, which is why the Khmer Krom people do not have access to information at all and have lost their freedom of religion,” he said.
Through his writings, he wants to advocate for Khmer people in Vietnam to exercise their rights to freedom and preserve their cultural traditions, he said.
Last month, Chengchon visited the U.S. to speak at the U.N. about Kampuchea Krom. He was not willing to give up advocating for the cause, he said, even if it meant he would not be able to return and see his parents in Vietnam.
“Because I report about the Khmer Krom to the world, I don’t think I’ll be able to go back.”
This article was edited on Jun 11 to correct the spellings of Son Chengchon and the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation.