An American Girl’s Point of View on Khmer Krom by Cythia Son
Four years ago, I had no idea who the Khmer Krom people were, much less what trials they were going through. I could not even point out their country on a map! We never learned about them in our history classes, we never heard about the daily persecutions of these people on the news, and we certainly never even seen a headline about the slow elimination of the indigenous people in the newspapers.
The closest thing we ever came to studying about Southeast Asia was one or two chapters on the Vietnam War; though, usually, we would skip that section of the book and learn about something more “important”.
When I met my husband three years ago, who happens to be Khmer Krom, he told me he was Vietnamese Cambodian. In my American mind, that told me his mother was probably Cambodian while his father was probably Vietnamese, or vise versa. Either way, I never really bothered with it. But, when the subject came up again in discussion, he told me he was actually Khmer Krom, which to him meant “Vietnamese Cambodian”.
I began asking him questions about his culture, most of which he could not answer because he could not remember. Although, he did tell me that when he was a child and was going to school, he was learning how to speak, read and write Vietnamese.
“If you were learning all that Vietnamese stuff,” I remember asking him, “then why do you only speak in Cambodian?”
“Because we fled the country when I was still very young,” he answered. The very thought of someone escaping from their own country could not be completely grasped in my mind. I was born and raised in the United States of America, which meant that I had my rights as a human being and they could never be revoked.
I wished to understand the severity of the Khmer Krom people and even to make my husband aware of his heritage. I went to the public library, ready to check out every book on the Khmer Krom people. To my surprise, there were absolutely no books, movies or even records! I went to every library in the county, my search only ending in disappointment.
After we went to Washington to visit my in-laws for the first time, I remember my husband’s mother inviting some Khmer Krom people over for lunch. When they arrived, they seemed very surprised that my husband had married an American white girl. Suddenly, the conversation turned to me.
“Do you know anything about the Khmer Krom,” one of the visitors asked me.
“They’re Vietnamese Cambodians, right?” That was my ignorant white girl answer.
He smiled at me, probably thinking how typical it was that I knew nothing about my own husband’s culture.
“Not quite,” he answered. He gave me a brief history lesson. A lesson that would spark my desire to throw myself into extensive research and do my part for my husband’s people.
The visitor taught me that the title Khmer Krom does not mean “Vietnamese Cambodian”. It means “Cambodians from below”. The Khmer Krom were the indigenous people of the Mekong River Delta, long before the Vietnamese arrived. In 1949, the Mekong delta was included in the state of South Vietnam, even though Cambodia protested, passionately.
During the Pol Pot era in the 1970s, the Vietnamese needed a real reason to invade Cambodia so they basically set up a trap for the Pol Pot regime to charge into. The attempt was a success for the Vietnamese as it opened the door for their army to invade Cambodia, illegally claiming the Mekong region as their own.
Now, several decades later, the Vietnamese government has denied the Khmer Krom people their human rights and continues to make everyday life difficult for them.
It sounded like something right from my high school American history books, relating to the losing battle the Native Americans fought against the Europeans. It horrified me but it also motivated me to dig deeper into this crisis that is practically unknown to the world.
Over the next three years, I would learn so many unbelievable things about the Khmer Krom that will never be erased from my mind. It angers me that the Vietnamese government, to this day, does not consider the Khmer Krom as civilized.
The Vietnamese believe they are doing them a favor by shoving their beliefs, teachings, and language down their throats as if they are spear-throwing savages. But, what they fail to mention is that the Vietnamese government is denying the Khmer Krom any affordable health care. They have also forbidden the publishing of their own books in their own language, the celebration of their holidays, their teachings and have even defrocked several Khmer Krom monks who dare to speak against this unfair government.
I have read, watched and listened to every story on the Khmer Krom and their history and I still feel that this is not enough. We need to do something more than just read about their suffering and watch their sad faces flip through the projector. They need the exact same rights we Americans have. The right to speak their language, the right to their own religion, the right to publish their books in their language, the right to teach their children of their proud history, the right to own their land, the right to speak against the government that squeezes the blood from their veins with every new generation. If something is not done soon, the Khmer Krom will not only fade away, but it will be as if they never existed.
Cynthia Son, The People of the Mekong (Khmer Krom Network, September 24, 2007), <http://khmerkrom.net/?q=node/971, retrieved October 20, 2007>.