“Having almost no rights in their home country, Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese are forced to live on the water, in poor conditions and with few opportunities.”
With a smile, 62-year-old Sreng Talong remembers being deported from his home country. The expulsion saved his life. It was in late 1975, a few months after the Khmer Rouge had taken power in Cambodia, and the ultra-Maoist regime was sending ethnic Vietnamese, such as Sreng Talong, to neighboring Vietnam.
“I saw so many people die during the Pol Pot regime era that I was really happy to be sent out,” he says.
The Khmer Rouge oversaw one of the largest genocides of the 20th century: an estimated two million of Cambodia’s seven million people died at their hands, from execution, starvation, overwork, and disease. In this murderous utopia, the ruling communists were obsessed with racial purity and persecuted those who were not deemed to be “real Khmers”. Nearly all of the estimated 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese who were not fortunate enough to be deported died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Sreng Talong’s younger sister and older brother were among the victims. Nine other members of his family, including his father, had been killed by the communist guerrillas between 1970 and 1975 before they took power.
Like many others, Sreng Talong lost all proof of his Cambodian origins during his deportation. When he returned, in 1981, to the land where he, his parents, and his grandparents were born, Sreng Talong was considered an illegal immigrant – and he still is. Later, he tried to buy a house in Kampong Chhnang, the central Cambodian province in which he was born.
“I had enough money but they didn’t allow me to buy it because I didn’t have papers,” he says.
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