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Kampuchea's Viet settlers: binding Hanoi's rule or avoiding it?

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''When I first came here in 1979,'' says Y, one of the oldest Vietnamese residents in the port section of Phnom Penh, ''there were just a handful of Vietnamese here. Now there are more than 900 families.''

Y (his real name, pronounced ''ee'') is a pedicab driver. He is one of the growing number of Vietnamese who are slipping quietly into Kampuchea to make a living.

He lives in the Little Market section of this Kampuchean capital. On one side of the road are two- and three-storied shop houses, inhabited by Khmers or Sino-Khmers. On the other side, on red, sun-baked earth sloping down to the Mekong River's edge, are the Vietnamese. They now number about 4,500 in this little community.

Nearly all new arrivals, the Vietnamese immigrants live in small wooden or bamboo huts or on boats on the river.

Y paid the captain of a Vietnamese government-owned river boat 600 dong (about three months' salary at the time) to take him upriver from the Vietnamese border to Phnom Penh. The boat, he says, was full of unofficial passengers, ''mostly traders going to sell on the black market in Phnom Penh or to buy from Sisophon (in western Kampuchea near the Thai border) but also (there were) some Vietnamese born in Phnom Penh who were going back.''

In more peaceful times about 500,000 Vietnamese lived in Kampuchea. They were merchants, electricians, mechanics, restaurateurs. Outside the cities they worked in the rubber planations or, together with the Muslim Cham minority, monopolized commercial fishing in Kampuchea's great lake, the Tonle Sap. Most left in 1970, when a massacre of Vietnamese residents followed Lon Nol's seizure of power; those who clung on afterward either fled back across the border when Pol Pot took over in 1975, or perished.


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