Khmer Krom Federation Discussed the Human Rights Violations at the UN

NEW YORK — “We continue to expound on the pressing concerns faced by the indigenous communities, particularly the Khmer Krom people of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Despite their ancestral ties to the land, Khmer Krom are still denied recognition as indigenous people, obstructing their rights to self-determination, self-governance, and autonomy. It is time for member states to have a dialogue in mutual respect with indigenous people to address this long-standing issue,” said Connie Hang, a Khmer Krom Federation Youth Committee member and activist during the 23rd session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (UNPFII) in New York on April 15th, 2024.

Connie Hang, Khmer Krom Federation Youth Committee member and activist drivers speech during the 23rd session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (UNPFII) in New York on April 15, 2024

A group of Khmer Krom Americans attending the meeting raised their concerns regarding Vietnam’s consistent repression of Khmer Krom people, which Vietnam denied.

Khmer Krom, which translates as “Lower Khmer” or South Cambodian, consists of people who lived in the southern part of Cambodia before it was annexed by Vietnam after the French withdrawal from Indochina in 1954. An estimated 8 million people are still living in what is now known as South Vietnam (Mekong Delta). They are still deeply attached to their culture, customs, religion, traditions, and ancestral land, which is about the size of Great Britain. Their capital city is Prey Nokor; Vietnam renamed it to Gia Dinh after their invasion of Cambodia in the 18th century, then changed it to Saigon, and changed it again to Ho Chi Minh City after Communist North Vietnam took control of the South Vietnam in 1975.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, “Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in virtually all areas. The ruling Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership. Basic rights are severely restricted, including freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and religion.”

For the past 20 years, the Khmer Krom Federation (KKF) has been attending and defending Khmer Krom rights at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) meetings. Sothy Kien, a KKF Youth said that despite their efforts, “member state Vietnam remains hypocritical about the UNDRIP and has continuously discarded Khmer Krom people’s rights to self-determination. Our human rights defenders are constantly harassed and criminalized for their efforts in educating the community about their indigenous identity, an inherent right they have.”

Sothy Kien, Khmer Krom Youth Committee member delivers speech during the 23rd session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (UNPFII) in New York between April 15-17th, 2024
Vietnam representative Dang Tran Nam Trung responds to Khmer Krom Federation Youths during the 23rd session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (UNPFII) in New York between April 15 – 17, 2024.

There are 13 Khmer Krom human rights defenders that have been arrested and imprisoned for their activism. “Five Buddhist monks have been defrocked from their religious standing and disgrace in an unholy manner, utterly disrespecting the Buddhist tradition and the Khmer Krom faith. This is a violation of Article 11 of UNDRIP,” said Kien.

UNDRIP is the acronym for United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted in 2007. UNDRIP emphasizes recognizing and respecting indigenous peoples’ rights, including providing them with specific protections under international law, safeguarding their land, culture, and education, and acknowledging their right to self-determination. Vietnam signed UNDRIP at the time of its adoption.

A report submitted by the Khmer Krom Federation to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on April 11, 2024 highlighted the arrest of Khmer Krom activists Thach Cuong, To Hoang Chuong, Danh Minh Quang, and Dinh Thi Huynh last July, representing broader systemic human rights violations by Vietnam. They were accused of “abusing democratic freedoms” for sharing pamphlets of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UNDRIP. Dinh Thi Huynh in particular was highlighted by Sothy Kien as a Khmer Krom woman who was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison after the International Woman’s Day event.

Kim Tien of Chelmsford, MA holds poster of Khmer Krom political prisoner Dinh Thi Huynh outside of UN in New York during the UNPFII conference week on April 19, 2024

“Indigenous women in particular face an intersectionality of challenges as they are the most vulnerable in the community due to their indigenous identity, their gender, and their social economic status,” said Kien. “Having access to autonomy and cultivating the land is the key to ensure that Khmer Krom women maintain their freedom and respect, but that’s not the case in the Mekong Delta.

They have primitively degraded Khmer Krom women and subjected them to manipulation of their farming land and intimidation to [prevent] further advocacy, [forced] to keep their social position as inferior in comparison to the non-indigenous woman. Despite these obstacles, the Khmer Krom women have [shown] remarkable resilience in defending their rights,” Kien added.

 Emily Hang, Khmer Krom Federation Youth Committee member delivers speech during the 23rd session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (UNPFII) in New York between April 15th -17th, 2024

One Khmer Krom youth member Emily Hang said, “the unjust imprisonment of our elders is ridding the youths of proper guidance of elders who have lineages worth of knowledge and wisdom that nurtures generational self-determination. The constant beration and incarceration of our elders is a violation of our indigenous rights to exercise our freedom of expression. Defending our rights, promoting our rights and maintaining our rights as indigenous people is our inherent right as indigenous people. We’re not ethnic minority. We’re the indigenous people. We will not be silenced. We will continue to communicate our issue through local and international platforms to bring light to the discrimination we face as indigenous people.”

A group of Khmer Krom people held a rally outside of UN in New York on April 19, 2024 during the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue conference week, demanding Vietnam to release all Khmer Krom political prisoners.

Vietnam representative at the UNPFII, Dang Tran Nam Trung, claimed that “Khmer Krom Federation does not legitimately represent ethnic Khmer Krom people in Vietnam.” He further dismissed the KKF as merely pushing their own political agenda that attempted to “undermine our national unity, state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independent.” According to the Human Rights Watch, human rights organizations are prohibited in Vietnam.

The government of Vietnam classified Khmer Krom as “ethnic minority Khmer”, however Khmer Krom asks for recognition of their indigenous identity, among other indigenous groups in Vietnam. Their plea aligns with Vietnam’s signed commitment to respecting indigenous people’s rights via UNDRIP. The organization asked the UN human rights rapporteur to follow up on the situation and to investigate these violations of human rights.

KKF staged a protest outside of the UN on the last day of the meeting, April 19th. Approximately 100 people attended, demanding the release of all Khmer Krom prisoners in Vietnam.