Tonle Sap, Cambodia – All that 61-year-old Thou Yien Son owns floats on water. His house is a precarious wooden platform tied to a bamboo raft and his income comes from a boat that he uses to catch fish and bring it to the local market. Yien Son doesn’t have anything else, not even Cambodian citizenship. He is one of the 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, a country that doesn’t consider them as citizens even though they’ve lived in the country for generations.
Most of the ethnic Vietnamese arrived in Cambodia during the French Protectorate (1863- 1953) to work in administration positions and in the countryside. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power and the Vietnamese were forcibly deported to Vietnam or killed. During the exile, most of them lost the papers that proved their Cambodian origin. On their return in the 1980s, they were considered migrants and became stateless.
Without papers, ethnic Vietnamese cannot buy land and most of them live in floating villages in Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, located deep inside Cambodia. Yien Son, told Al Jazeera: “I came back because my grandparents and my parents were born and died here. This is my land.”
But there is one hope for the ethnic Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal opened a new case against the top leaders of the regime, that will judge, among other crimes, the genocide committed against the Vietnamese community, which ethnic Vietnamese civil society leaders hope to use to gain repatriation. This same tribunal just condemned Nuon Chea, the second most senior leader in the Khmer Rouge, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, to life in prison for crimes against humanity.