Prek Chrey Commune is situated along the Cambodian side of the Bassac River at the Vietnam border. The inhabitants are largely Cambodians, although a majority of them are officially stateless and of Vietnamese ethnicity, which does NOT mean that they are Vietnamese. The ethnic Vietnamese currently make up an estimated 85% of the commune’s population, which counts roughly 10,000 inhabitants in total.
Khmer and Ethnic Vietnamese Communities in Prek Chrey and Khnar Tang Yu villages
The Khmer Community
The Khmer population suffers under a feeling of being less valuable as the Vietnamese whom they consider as the more successful farmers or small retailers. To deal with this issue, KCD started to work with a small group of Khmer villagers wanting to improve their living conditions through their own efforts.
Most of the Khmer are living in one village part called Inner-Prek-Chrey that has no Vietnamese inhabitant (see the map here above). They are mostly farmers (fishers in the flood season) and few of them are small retailers or work in the garment fabric on the other side of the Bassac River.
In Outer-Prek-Chrey, a few Khmer or Khmer-Vietnamese families are living together with ethnic Vietnamese. In Khnar Tang Yu also, only a few Khmer or Khmer-Vietnamese families live together with the population of Vietnamese origin.
Concerning their education, most of the Khmer children in age to go to school are registered as students, but only the half actually does go to school, many of them even not regularly. The reason is that the families need the help of the children at home or in the fields. A recent change is due to the bad economical situation: grown-ups lost their job in the garment fabric and are now replaced by children from the own family with lower income.
This is why KCD works on Child Rights issues together with children’s groups. Besides of this, KCD obtained in 2012 the support of the Japanese Embassy to repair the school facilities in Prek Chrey village, improving so the conditions for a higher school attendance.
The Ethnic Vietnamese Community
The ethnic Vietnamese in the commune of Prek Chrey are mostly fishers and farmers. They belong actually to three different groups. Around 1/3 from the ethnic Vietnamese in Prek Chrey do have the Cambodian nationality (i.e. they may participate in votes and may become landowners).
The second group is made out from Vietnamese nationals who are officially not allowed to buy land: most of them rent the land they are farming on or are small retailers. Their economical life is totally turned towards Vietnam.
The third group are ethnic Vietnamese without any nationality. The events before, during and after Khmer Rouge period made them to unofficial refugees and refugees’ children who do not enjoy the same rights as the Cambodians.
The second and third groups are allowed to live on the Cambodian territory thanks to a residence permit, which is issued by the local athorities.
The Vietnamese of Prek Chrey are told to be richer than the Khmer are, although KCD could not make out a significant difference in the living standards of both communities. The greatest difference is between the inhabitants of Prek Chrey and their more prosperous Vietnamese neighbours in Vietnam.
Concerning the education, the school system in neighbouring Vietnam is more efficient than the one in Prek Chrey. This is why even the few Vietnamese of Prek Chrey who are able to speak Khmer prefer to let their children study in Vietnam.
Concerning the opportunity of studying, the children of the second group (Vietnamese nationals) go to school in Vietnam for free.
As they have no Vietnamese birth certificate, children from the first and third groups need to pay for going to school in Vietnam. This is why the poorest among them do not go to school at all, as they also do not speak Khmer, hence cannot join the Khmer school either. KCD’s policy is therefore to encourage Vietnamese children living in Prek Chrey to learn Khmer.
History: The Khmer-Vietnamese conflict
Cambodia and Vietnam share a long history of conflict, going back to ancient times. The dislike has over the years been transformed from a conflict of nations to a conflict of ethnicities. Cambodians with Vietnamese roots, so called Vietnamese Cambodians or ethnic Vietnamese, became widely unpopular. During and after the official era of the Khmer Rouge Regime, they were haunted vigorously. Those who did not lose their lives lost everything else. They had to escape from the places their families had called home for generations. Today, few ethnic Vietnamese can be found around the Tonle Sap Lake, an area that was largely inhabited by Vietnamese Cambodians before the time of the Khmer Rouge. They all left by boat for Vietnam along the Tonle Sap and the Bassac River. Few of them ever arrived there. Where the Bassac River reaches the Vietnam border, they were stuck between two countries who both denied them. Until today, the Vietnamese authorities regard them as Cambodians, the Cambodian authorities as Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge had left them without identification papers and thus without any prove of their Cambodian citizenship. The place where their escape came to an end is Prek Chrey.
What we have done in Prek Chrey during the first ten years
When we first came to Prek Chrey, the commune was captured in unrest, conflict and poverty. The different ethnic groups were afraid of each other, Khmer children did not have the opportunity to study because there was no school for them, dengue fever caused child deaths every year and existing live-sustaining businesses were unstable. We decided to act on all these issues simultaniously. Step by step, we built up our projects and gained the trust of the entire commune over the years on our way to work towards what seemed to be impossible: peace.
The relationship between ethnic Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese in Prek Chrey today
Today, many Khmer in Prek Chrey have gained self-confidence regarding their own potential and their role as neighbors of an ethnic Vietnamese majority. With the support of KCD, they could establish stable livelihoods and their children receive the education they need to achieve their full potential and contribute to the development of Cambodia. But inequalitites and conflict do still exist. The Khmer education is still far behind the quality of the education which students receive who can study in Vietnam due to their language skills. The stateless ethnic Vietnamese get increasingly more discriminated by the Cambodian laws, which makes them more vulnerable but also more aggressive towards the local Khmer, who have Cambodian citizenship. Although their relationship has improved remarkably over the last years, there is still a long way to go.