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Opinion: Khmer Krom's Journey to Self-Determination

Today, Khmer Krom people and Khmer, in general, are marking the 70th year of the French's accession of Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam on June 4, 1949. Here, I want to make some points in seeding the light on a journey to Khmer Krom’s right to self-determination, emphasising on youth capacity building, preservation of cultural identity, prioritisation of the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) nearest goal and building trust and unity among Khmer Krom people.

First, we all know that youths are the backbone of any society and nation-building. Among Khmers, we often say metaphorically youths are the middle column of a nation and the bamboo shoots that grow to become the hard, useful bamboo. This means that youth will be the future leaders of any organisation. It is even more important when it is concerned with the pursuit of the right to self-determination of indigenous people who are unrepresented in the international community.

As it is widely known, Khmer Krom youths in the Mekong Delta (South Vietnam), are enchained to live as the second-class citizens in our own homeland. Our basic human rights to freely practise religious beliefs, and to preserve heritage, culture and language have been constantly violated by the Vietnamese authorities. To break this chant and to assert our right to self-determination, I believe, youth empowerment through adequate education is of utmost importance.

The Khmer Krom youth diaspora should be inspired to pursue higher education in various fields which are useful for KKF future leadership. On the other hand, youth active participation in international forums should be motivated as it will enhance their capacity building and provide youth with the necessary skill in public debates. We should understand that in the globalising world with a rule-based international order, resorting to war and violence is not a better mean to win the right to self-determination. But the war of intellectual and diplomacy has become the effective weapon of resistance against oppression and repression of indigenous peoples. 

We should have learned from the fact that KKF application in seeking the special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has been deferred and delayed many times. In my personal view, it is not because of ineligibility of KKF but because of our inability to convince the member countries to accept the application against Vietnam’s constant objections that often wrongly labelled it as a terrorist, separatist group. Therefore, youth capacity building must be further emphasised and resources should be invested in furthering their active participation in international platforms. More importantly, Khmer Krom youth who settled down in the third countries should be individually or in team join political organisations and political parties. This is an effective way to make their voices heard and make the presence of Khmer Krom felt by foreign nationals.

Secondly, as we have known, due to Vietnam’s assimilation (clandestine) policy, the heritage, culture and language which are the most important identities of Khmer Krom are in great danger. To take some examples, learning our language could put us in jail for years. Moreover, religious practice has been monitored and controlled by the state authorities. Many temples of historical and heritage values are forced to changed their original names and are demolished. Meanwhile, in such a restrictive atmosphere and fear, the younger people begin to lose their command of speaking the indigenous language (Khmer). They also become passive in claiming their right to determine their future fate. Again, the Khmer saying goes if the culture vanishes, the nation will also vanish; if the culture flourishes, the nation will also flourish. 

Apart from the basic education, younger people in Kampuchea Krom (South Vietnam) should be educated to understand their right to self-determination and to realise the importance of culture, language and religion. Khmer Krom youth in the local and abroad should be encouraged to master Khmer language, love Khmer culture and practice Buddhism faithfully. Buddhism symbolises a peaceful resistance movement that can enhance the image of the KKF as a pacific non-governmental organisation and naturally attract global support and affection.

Thirdly, in the meantime, KKF chief goal is to secure consultative status in UN ECOSOC. It appears that KKF is close to gaining consultative status in ECOSOC. Unlike the two previous applications in 2012 and 2016 which had been closed by the ECOSOC committee without any delay, this time, the 2019 application decision has rather been delayed for further questioning after six months. In the recent ECOSOC session of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations on May 20, 2019, while Vietnam accused KKF as a terrorist, separatist group, the US representative came to defend KKF and appreciated its good works. Big thanks. Due to time constraints, five countries wanted written answers and more details from KKF regarding the Federation's recent structural change of its statute, sources of fund and activities in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand among other things. Those five countries are India, China, Russia, Cuba, and Nicaragua. 

As one of the UN organs, ECOSOC has 19 member countries. Obtaining the consultative status of this UN body is significant for KKF struggle to self-determination and human rights of the Khmer Krom people in Kampuchea Krom. NGOs with consultative status can "access to not only ECOSOC but also to its many subsidiary bodies, to the various human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, ad-hoc processes on small arms, as well as special events organized by the President of the General Assembly." Most importantly, it provides KKF with the opportunity to sit in the same room with Vietnam during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), is conducted in five-year circle (third). Thus, KKF can respond to reports on the human right situation in Vietnam by Vietnamese representative.

Finally, in supporting the above goal, Khmer Krom must be united at any cost. Unity or Samaki is the core of any national struggle. To emphasise on the importance of unity, the Khmer scholars said: “Khmer unite Khmer survive, Khmer disunite Khmer die”. Similarly, the general proverb goes “Unity is strength”. But how to build up unity among Khmer community? We can extract some lessons from Buddha teachings on unity. First, selfishness and four biases (affection, hatred, ignorance and fear) are evils to be removed and then metta and karuna or loving-kindness and compassion are principles to be cultivated so as to create community unity and harmony. Moreover, building a strong network of Khmer Krom youth and people worldwide is also important. But most importantly, respects for rule of law and organisation statute (Dhammadhipateyya) will lead to mutual trust and transparency. This can be learned from Vajjians of Indian ancient kingdom of Vesali who maintained Satta Apahaniya Dhamma or the seven conditions of the welfare state in Mahaparinibban sutta.

In sum, as Nelson Mandela famously says, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In this connection, I would like to restate that if the struggle for the right to self-determination to be succeeded the KKF should prioritise its agenda on youth capacity building through higher education and youth active participation in international forums, and youth realisation of the importance of Khmer Krom culture. This can be done with help and support from partner organisations such as UNPO (KKF as its member) and ECOSOC (KKF seeking consultative status). Meanwhile, unity among Khmer Krom community is the most important root of success.
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