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Vietnam jails Khmer Krom Buddhists

Prosecutors claim dissidents had upset religious and national unity
Youth activists raise their arms to mark the 67th anniversary of the loss of a large territory called Kampuchea Krom (Khmer Krom) to Vietnam, during a ceremony at a pagoda in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2016. Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia, was home to about 12 million ethnic Khmers. The region was incorporated into what is now Vietnam during the French colonial era.

Youth activists raise their arms to mark the 67th anniversary of the loss of a large territory called Kampuchea Krom (Khmer Krom) to Vietnam, during a ceremony at a pagoda in Phnom Penh on June 4, 2016. Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia, was home to about 12 million ethnic Khmers. The region was incorporated into what is now Vietnam during the French colonial era. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 21, 2024 09:34 AM GMT
Updated: March 21, 2024 10:23 AM GMT

Two Khmer Krom activists have been jailed for up to four years by a Vietnamese court for “abusing democratic freedom” which followed their arrest last year when they were caught distributing books about the rights of indigenous people.

To Hoang Chuong, 38, was sentenced to four years behind bars , and Thach Cuong, 37, was jailed for three-and-a-half years by the Cau Ngang District People’s Court in southern Tra Vinh province after their conviction under Article 331 of the penal code.

Human Rights activists say Article 331 is used by the government to silence dissent, including Khmer Krom people who live in the lower Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam, once southeast Cambodia.

Ethnic Khmer Krom are considered Cambodians who live in Vietnam and were targeted for extermination by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

A third conviction was registered against Danh Minh Quang, 34, last month on similar charges and he was also sentenced to three-and-a-half years by a court in a neighboring province.

Prosecutors argued all three had violated Vietnamese law by using their Facebook accounts to post comments, share photos and live-stream videos that upset “national and religious unity, distorted the history of Vietnam and the authorities and insulted their prestige.”

According to the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom (USICRF), all three are Buddhist activists who were reportedly targeted because they distributed information about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

They also advocated “for the rights of Khmer Krom Buddhists to practice their religion as informed by their ethnic and cultural background and independent from state interference.”

According to the USICRF, “Chuong was reportedly temporarily detained and tortured in June 2023 while visiting another detained Khmer Krom activist in Soc Trang province”.

The USICRF designated Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern in November 2022, a designation that analysts have said Hanoi wants lifted and is a potential sore point amid current preparations for the first papal tour of Vietnam, expected to take place later this year.

In a report published last September, the USICRF found in Vietnam “persistent – and apparently worsening – egregious, ongoing, and systematic violations.

“These violations are especially prevalent in rural and provincial levels and present the most challenges to ethnic and religious minority communities,” it said.

Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association Secretary General Son Chum Chuon said the sentences were severe, unfair and unjust given Chuong and Cuong were tried without access to a lawyer.

“These allegations are contrary to their actual activities,” he told Radio Free Asia. “That is why we urged the Vietnamese government or the court to give them a lawyer.”

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