Barely afloat: Vietnamese fishermen in Cambodia

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A Vietnamese washes clothes from his boat on the Tonlé Sap. More than 1,500 Vietnamese families live in boats on the lake with no personal papers or steady income. Photo courtesy of Tien Phong

It's the end of March and the Tonlé Sap is drying up. What's left is a thin layer of opaque water that gets stirred up by tourist boats passing by, only to reveal the stink of garbage and stagnant mud. 
More than ten children of around 9 to 12 years old, exposing dark scabby skin through their rags, didn’t mind that as they bent down to look for crabs and snails along the shore.
“The water is too dirty, the catch has been getting smaller,” one of them, 11-year-old Sang, told Tien Phong newspaper.
“I could only find more than a kilogram on a lucky day, and I could sell them for 2,000 Riel (half a dollar) to help my parents buy rice,” he said after a two-hour hunt.
They are children of some thousand Vietnamese fishing migrants who live on their boats and use water from the lake that they discharge waste into and who don’t have either papers or money to send the young ones to school.
Dinh, a Cambodian tour guide working on the lake, said overseas Vietnamese (Viet kieu) are usually imagined as rich people, but the lake community is not. “They are the poorest Viet kieu.”
Their living has been made harder by tourism polluting the lake and the local government issuing a fishing ban. The largest freshwater lake in the Southeast Asia, 16,000 square kilometers during the monsoon, was recognized a world biosphere reserve in 1997.
Long, Sang’s 38-year-old father, rows his boat tens of kilometers a day looking for shallow water to cast his net.
His fingers are all ulcerated from constant soaking.
Long shrugged off infection concerns, saying that it’s just a part of making a living and it won’t be able to kill him.
“Frankly speaking, we are not scared of diseases, only of not affording to feed ourselves everyday.
“There’s already less fish and shrimp, and now the fishing ban. I have to do it secretly.”
Long told Tien Phong that if he is caught, he won’t have money to pay the fine even if he sells everything. His biggest asset is a boat that he calls home while some other families only have a raft that gets filled with water when the tides are rough.
He said his nearly 40-or-so colleagues are likely to go to jail for repeated violations and for failing to pay the cash penalty.
“But it’s impossible not to violate the ban again, as fishing has been our way for living for generations, we don’t know what else to do.”
Long said he and some other men had tried to look for any trivial jobs possible on the mainland, like porters, but people did not want to hire them as they don’t have personal papers.
Some people were pushed into a corner and had to abandon their dignity to beg for money from tourists, he said.
Official figures showed that more than 1,500 Vietnamese families are living on the lake, most of them born around the Great Lake as their grandfathers left southern Vietnam for it.
Minh, 57, said his family ran from war after war, and they’re still losing now in the end.
His grandfather brought the family from Dong Thap Province to Cambodia during the chaotic time under French colonization. His father and mother met and got married in Cambodia.
The whole family came back to Vietnam in 1964 but left again after three years to seek refuge from the Vietnam War.
A life of moving did not allow his parents to have any personal documents, the same for him and his children.
“All people here are of Vietnamese origin. We all have that fatherland, but we don’t have a nationality, so we lose,” Minh said.
“The children don’t have birth certificates, so they cannot go to school. Adults don’t have papers, so to start a new business or look for a new job is as hard as building a ladder to the sky.”
Their boats are not connected to the power system, so most families put their lights out from 7 p.m.
Long said that without any night entertainment, most families have many children, like his with five ranging from 18 months to 16 years old, plus an embryo.
A way out?
A girl is all attention at the charity school opened on Tonlé Sap for children of Vietnamese migrants

As there’re so many children and not an official school for them, Tran Van Tu, 77, from Tay Ninh Province at the border has been running a charity school in the middle of the lake for more than 30 years.
Tu built the school on an old raft provided by Vietnamese soldiers in the area.
His first two teachers were sisters who he rescued from human traffickers. The sisters were studying at a university and high school in Ho Chi Minh City when they were cheated out of money and gold and tricked into crossing the border and trapped at a brothel.
Tu and the teachers returned to Vietnam in 1989 when Vietnamese soldiers finished their voluntary mission and withdrew.
The school reopened in 1993 with support from the Vietnam embassy, the Vietnam military and some donors and volunteer teachers.
It is now divided into five rooms for five grades, not only teaching but, when possible, also feeding 314 children.

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