A Cambodian advocacy group says the Mekong Delta of Vietnam should be returned to the Khmer people who have lived there for generations.
The region is still referred to as Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia, by many Cambodians, despite its partitioning to Vietnam by the French in 1949.
The loss of the region is a sensitive political issue, as it raises old animosities toward Vietnam and its occupation of Cambodia after it ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Thach Ngoc Thach, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation, told “Hello VOA” Thursday he believes the Khmer Krom people have some standing for pushing the UN for a return of their land.
Khmer Krom report land rights abuse and religious persecution at the hands of Vietnamese authorities, creating political tension between both countries.
“Can Khmer Krom live with Vietnamese?” he asked. “How can the Khmer Krom live? We have laws about indigenous groups and human rights.”
He cited examples of autonomous zones for native Canadians as an example of what Khmer Krom could push for. In Indonesia or the Philippines, meanwhile, highly diverse groups are able to live together, he said.
“There are all kinds of examples for the Vietnamese government to treat Khmer Krom and other indigenous groups to be able to live within Vietnamese society,” he said.
He praised the policies of Thailand, which has accommodated the Khmer Surin people there. Both the Khmer Surin and the Khmer Krom are remnants of a once-dominant Khmer empire, which ultimately shrank between the growing power its neighbors.
Thach Ngoc Thach said the Khmer Krom should now be treated with dignity and without human rights abuse. Vietnamese authorities still worry about a declaration of independence in the delta region, he said.
“Vietnam fears what happens consistently in the world: for people in any society who are not happy with that society, they can break away, according to UN laws,” he said.
He appealed for the reduction of violence to solve the problems of the Kampuchea Krom. “Nonviolence makes it possible for us to demonstrate that the Khmer Krom people are the victims, and all Cambodians are the victims, and then we can ask one to solve this for us,” he said.
But government spokesman Phay Siphan says Kampuchea Krom belongs in history, while the borders between the two countries are a present reality.
“We follow the rule of law,” he said. “We do not follow emotions or political trends that bring conflict between Cambodia and its neighbors, not at all.”
Thach Ngoc Thach said he does not expect the Cambodian government to solve the problem. “Khmer Krom around the world still have the ability to solve it,” he said.