Khmers from Kampuchea Krom in Vietnam and Uighurs from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China – Sunday, 27.12.2009
The Mirror, Vol. 13, No. 644
The following information is not saying that the situation of the Khmer people in Kampuchea Krom – now a part of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – and the situation of the Uighur people in the People’s Republic of China is the same. There are a lot of reasons to point to the differences – but still, there are similarities in spite of the many differences in history, culture, and politics.
A brief survey of both situations is presented her, because people from both regions have been in the press during the last week. But while people in Cambodia have general information about the history why Kampuchea Krom is not part of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which leads to an understandable immediate emotional relation – from Khmers to Khmers – there were hardly any reports in the Khmer press about the asylum seekers’ background. In one report they were even called “Chinese ethnic Uighurs” – on the other hand, it is not usual in the Khmer press to speak about “Vietnamese ethnic Khmers” when referring to Khmer people from Kampuchea Krom.
The following brief information is also not claiming to be a comprehensive description of the two complex fields under discussion. Information is collected in good faith – but where there may be important omissions or mistakes, we invite our readers always to come forward with their Comments in order to present a better picture – not only in this case, but in general.
The Khmer Kampuchea Krom in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
The area of the lower Mekong Delta was inhabited by Khmers long before the arrival of the Vietnamese. In the 17th century, more and more Vietnamese people moved South, so that the Khmers in the Mekong Delta became a minority in their original environment. In 1623, King Chey Chettha II of Cambodia (1618-1628) allowed Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Trịnh-Nguyễn War [Trinh-Nguyen War] in Vietnam to settle in the area of Prey Nokor. In 1698, Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh [Nguyen Huu Canh] was sent by the Nguyen rulers of Huế [Hue] to set up Vietnamese administrative structures, separating the Mekong Delta from the rest of Cambodia. Cambodia had no energy to resist this gradual Vietnamization, because it used more of its energy for a conflicts with Thailand. By 1698, the area had a Vietnamese administration.
Before that, Prey Nokor had been the most important access to the sea for Cambodia. Under the name of Sài Gòn [Saigon], it became the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina.
In 1939, Jules Brevié as head of the French administration, draw a line on the map basically do delineate the maritime borders between Cochinchina and Cambodia, but this “Brevié Line” was also used, when Cambodia gained independence from France, to set the border between South Vietnam and Cambodia. Saigon became the capital of South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975, and in 1976, it was named Hồ Chí Minh City [Ho Chi Minh City]. And with it, the originally Khmer inhabited Mekong Delta became Vietnam.
According to Vietnamese statistics, now there are more than 1 million Khmer Krom in Vietnam.
The Uighurs [also Uygurs or Uigurs] in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region [新疆维吾尔自治区] “spans over 1.6 million sq. km and borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has abundant oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region. It administers most of Aksai Chin, a territory formally part of Kashmir’s Ladakh region over which India claims sovereignty since 1962.
“‘Xinjiang’ literally means ‘New Frontier,’ a name given [only as late as 1884] during the Qing Dynasty [清朝 – 1644 to 1912]. It is home to a number of different ethnic groups and major ethnic groups include Uyghur, Han, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz and Mongol [in the extreme North-West of present day China]. Older English-language reference works often refer to the area as Chinese Turkestan, Sinkiang and East Turkestan…
“With a documented history of at least 2,500 years, and a succession of different peoples and empires vying for control over the territory, Xinjiang has been, and continues to be, a focal point of ethnic tensions well into the beginning of the 21st century.” [Main source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xinjiang]
The 13th century European-Venetian traveler to China, Marco Polo, described the region as Turkistan. One part of the vast “region became part of the Russian Empire in 1860, as Russian Turkestan [Туркестанский Край], later as the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union, then split into the Kazakh SSR (Kazakhstan), Kyrgyz SSR (Kyrgyzstan), Tajik SSR (Tajikistan), Turkmen SSR (Turkmenistan) and Uzbek SSR (Uzbekistan). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these republics gained their independence.” [Main source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkestan]
The eastern section of the area, inhabited by Uighur speaking people – a Turkic language, related to the Turkish language and completely unrelated to Chinese – did not gain political independence, as it had become part of China in 1884, after China had conquered the region, established it as Xinjiang (“new frontier”) as a province; as the name shows, it was clearly identified as a newly acquired border region.
A rebellion in 1933 tried to gain independence by establishing the First East Turkistan Republic – only for a brief time.
Another rebellion in 1943 established the Second East Turkistan Republic, from 1944 to 1949. During this uprising, a brother of Mao Tse-Tung, Mao Ze-min, was killed. The Second East Turkistan Republic came to an end when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered the region, and it was renamed in 1955 as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (As it was now part of the People’s Republic of China, it could also be used in 1964 to test the first Chinese nuclear explosion.)
Having been made a part of the People’s Republic of China, this opened also a steady stream of Han-Chinese immigrants into the Uighur region.
The fear of Uighurs to lose their social and economic role in their own region, including their cultural and religious identities – the Uighurs are traditionally Muslim – led to a series of violent clashes. In 1962, 60,000 people fled to the Soviet Union and were accepted as refugees, there were student demonstrations in the 1980ies, in 1990 there was an uprising that resulted in 50 people being killed. In 1997, 30 Uighurs were executed as suspected separatists.
The ethnic tensions, which also let to the establishment of an East Turkestan Independence Movement, saw a newly element added recently, relating to some international Islamist-fundamentalist terrorist movements. As the long history of the Uighur struggle to have their own identity respected shows, present day terrorist elements cannot be called to be the main problem of ethnic self determination – which does not necessarily mean political separation. But the problems became more complicated during the last conflicts in 2009: some Han Chinese voices in the Uighur region are reported to reject the policy of the state to accept a certain autonomy of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as discriminatory against non-Uighur – Chinese – immigrants.
Some officials of the Cambodian government claimed that the 20 Uighurs, who were forced to be sent to China were treated like this, because they were illegal immigrants who had not entered the country with proper documents. That is what hundreds of thousands of Cambodians did, who fled the country to Thailand during and after the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia.
Now there are 24 Khmer people from Kampuchea Krom who were deported from Thailand as illegal immigrants – but as a first step, the Poipet authorities rejected to provide shelter for them, as some seem originate from within the country. But not all. Six of them arrived now in Phnom Penh to seek assistance from the government and the UNHCR to receive Khmer nationality. In whatever way they came to Thailand and were sent to Cambodia – if they came from Kampuchea Krom, they are Vietnamese citizens (whether they carry identity papers or passports from where they came from or not). As they are Khmer, the Thai authorities could send these “illegals” to Cambodia, hoping they will get Cambodian citizenship and will not be repatriated to Vietnam.
The twenty Uighurs did not have such a place of origin to go to, they had fled their place of origin. There were no reports that they had been personally identified as having committed crimes – there were two children among them! – but they were sent to China.
But they were not “Chinese ethnic Uighurs” – unless we also call the six Khmer people asking for Cambodian nationality “Vietnamese.” And in both cases it is similarly difficult to see why one should – as some commentators say – “Just leave them to their government.” In both cases, the history, which they carry in their lives, is more complex than to be appropriately dealt with, using such simpleminded advice.
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