Cablegate: Balancing Ethnic and Religious Diversity in Soc Trang And

Published: Mon 10 Nov 2003 07:29 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E. O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) Summary: DCM (then Charge) and ConGen Poloff visited Soc
Trang and Tra Vinh Provinces during October 1-3, to examine
firsthand the situation for the ethnic Khmer in the Mekong Delta,
in light of continuing reports of discrimination from sources
overseas. Situated in an area that once belonged to Cambodia,
these two coastal provinces have large Khmer populations. But
while these are both relatively poor, underdeveloped provinces,
the ethnic Khmer seem to be faring no worse than anyone else.
Both provinces depend heavily on wet rice agriculture and
aquaculture, but are hoping to diversify if infrastructure can be
improved. During his trip, the DCM had an opportunity to speak
with provincial officials, Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic
leaders, local businessmen, and ordinary Khmer residents. For
their part, the officials seemed committed to sharing any new
wealth fairly among the ethnic Khmer and the majority Vietnamese
Kinh. The Khmer, meanwhile, seemed well integrated and raised no
allegations of ethnic strife. The Khmer language and culture,
including Khmer Buddhist practices, appeared to be flourishing.
End summary.
2. (U) Soc Trang covers an area of just over 3200 square
kilometers, including 72 kilometers of coastline. Ethnic Khmer
number 340,000 (28 percent) out of a total population of 1.2
million. There are also 65,000 ethnic Chinese. Just up the
coast, Tra Vinh occupies a land area of 2228 square kilometers,
with 65 kilometers of coastline. The population of one million
includes 300,000 (30 percent) ethnic Khmer. Most Khmer in the two
provinces are rice farmers, but some have begun to venture into
more lucrative fields, such as shrimp farming and cattle raising.
Of the two provincial capitals, Tra Vinh seemed the tidier,
cleaner, and more prosperous town. The town is well-known for its
many old trees. Roads in both provinces were narrow and often
choked by even mild two-way traffic.
3. (U) Agriculture and aquaculture account for over 50 percent of
economic activity in the two provinces. Soc Trang fares slightly
better, with annual yields of 1.6 million tons of rice and 56,000
tons of sea products. Five local seafood-processing plants handle
nearly 30,000 tons, with the remainder processed by individual
farmers and fishermen for sale to exporters. Four of the five are
in private hands, including the largest, which processed over
USD$80 million in sea products last year. Soc Trang already ranks
just behind Ca Mau as the largest seafood exporter in the country.
Provincial leaders hope to expand shrimp farming from 48,000 to
nearly 80,000 hectares over the next few years. This would raise
output to 72,000 tons (worth an estimated USD$480 million) by
2005. Having recognized the ecological shortcomings of flooding
rice fields with saltwater to create shrimp ponds, local
authorities are looking for more natural methods. Overall
economic growth in the province exceeded 8 percent last year.
Annual per capita income was slightly lower than the national
average, at USD$379.
4. (U) Tra Vinh, meanwhile, produced 1.2 million tons of rice, but
many local Khmer farmers are moving from rice to sugar cane and
livestock. Like its neighbor, Tra Vinh is trying to exploit its
coastal location for aquaculture. Unfortunately, Tra Vinh has
only half as much available area for shrimp farming as Soc Trang,
and is hampered by the constant tidal mixing of fresh, salty, and
brackish water. Despite those drawbacks, economic growth reached
almost 10 percent last year, raising per capita incomes to just
under USD$350 per year.
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5. (SBU) Despite this relative good fortune, the two provinces
still have a long way to go to provide true economic opportunity
and a decent standard of living to all their inhabitants. Neither
province currently has much to offer in the way of manufacturing
or services, although both are eager to attract American
investment, development assistance, and NGO activity. Soc Trang
People's Committee Chairman Huynh Thanh Hiep told DCM he had just
submitted a proposal to the central government for a new 150
hectare industrial park with deep water port facilities and was
looking at ways to get funding for a new marketplace to revitalize
the provincial capital's downtown commercial area. The industrial
park would host mostly food processors. The deep water port, a
floating transit point in the Dinh An Estuary, was expected to
move 10,000 tons of freight. Mr. Hiep said the American Chamber
of Commerce in HCMC had recently referred one American investor
for the project.
6. (SBU) Chairman Hiep bemoaned the difficulties of mobilizing
sufficient capital to achieve the desired level of growth, noting
that the province received the equivalent of only USD$10 million
per year from the national government. Director Kien of the
Department of Planning and Investment noted that Soc Trang was
still at the stage of development where all available funds go
immediately to upgrading infrastructure and improving the general
welfare of the people. He said Soc Trang's only foreign direct
investment project was about to close down because the Taiwanese
investor was unable to compete with similar factories in HCMC.
Over dinner, Chairman Hiep acknowledged the good work of many
international NGOs in the province, including some from the U.S.
He hoped some benefit might flow to the province if airports in Ca
Mau and Can Tho were to reopen. He also thought Can Tho's pending
reclassification as an independently administered city might
spread the wealth to nearby Delta provinces like Soc Trang. (Post
Note: Designation as a special administrative city -- Hanoi,
HCMC, Danang, and Haiphong -- confers some degree of autonomy on a
municipality in terms of taxes, budget priorities, land use, and
project licensing approvals. In essence, it makes the city a
province in and of itself. End note.)
7. (SBU) Tra Vinh People's Committee Vice Chairman Tran Hoang Kim
noted that industry represented only 10 percent of his province's
economic output, centered mostly on food processing -- shrimp,
coconut, and sugar cane. Vice Chairman Kim (a three-time delegate
to the National Assembly before the current session) is intent on
locating garment and textile factories in Tra Vinh, but
acknowledged serious problems with transporting raw materials and
finished goods. Even with three highways crisscrossing the
province, waterborne transportation was still the only way to move
large shipments. Hong-Viet, a small joint venture with a Hong
Kong company, just signed a contract with a larger HCMC firm and
plans to expand from 600 to 2000 workers in the near future.
Another private firm is expected to start producing garments by
the end of this year.
8. (SBU) Vice Chairman Kim said there had been little effect on
his province from the Bilateral Trade Agreement with the U.S.,
even with the subsequent increase in the volume of trade. He did
think WTO accession would have a positive effect on Vietnam's
exports, however, and was not worried about competition from
foreign agricultural producers. In the longer term, bridges
spanning three of the "Nine Dragons" of the Mekong River,
scheduled for completion in 2007 and 2008, would make the province
more attractive to manufacturers. Mr. Kim said he hoped
Vietnamese-Americans with expertise in shrimp farming would view
Tra Vinh as a good place to invest.
9. (SBU) In Tra Vinh, the DCM toured the high-tech shrimp
processing line of the Cuu Long Sea Products Company. Director
Nguyen Van Bang -- a 1985 Can Tho University graduate, who joined
the company a year later, and worked his way up through the ranks
-- said the company had just begun shipping frozen seafood (mostly
tiger shrimp) to the east and west coasts of the U.S. in 2000.
Sixty percent of their product went to the U.S. in 2001, and 50
percent in 2002. Total turnover was up from USD$13 million in
2001 to over USD$18 million in the first nine months of 2003. Cuu
Long employs 900 workers, including 100 Khmer. The workers enjoy
excellent working conditions, including wages at almost twice the
provincial average, twice yearly medical examinations, and free
lunches. The company buys mostly from small fishermen and shrimp
farmers. This state-owned company is in the process of
privatizing, and plans to hold its first shareholder conference in
January 2004. Looking toward expanding exports to Eastern Europe,
Director Bang described the difficulties of having to truck his
products to HCMC in freezer trucks for shipment.
10. (SBU) The DCM also had an opportunity to travel to a remote
Tra Vinh village with the regional representative of U.S.-based
SELCO (Solar Electric Light Company). The company, which also
does business in India and Sri Lanka, targets customers not
connected to the national power grid. The company is still not
profitable in Vietnam, with sales of only 1448 solar energy units
over the past two years, but estimates show potentially 20 million
families in Vietnam still relying on generator or battery power.
The target market is families earning USD$70 per month, considered
sufficient to pay the required USD$9 per month for financing.
(Loans are arranged through the Bank for Agricultural
Reconstruction and Development. The default rate is approximately
18 percent.) One major obstacle to greater sales is that not many
families can afford the USD$200 down payment on the USD$900 solar
unit, at least not without help from their families overseas.
Another problem is illegal wires strung from distant power lines
to rural homes (in full view of the retinue of provincial
officials who joined the DCM for the tour), which obviate the need
to purchase a SELCO unit. SELCO officials complained that they
are also hamstrung by excessive red tape, such as the requirement
that the provincial People's Committee sign off on every loan
application. The local Women's Union is often helpful in pushing
loan applications through the Committee in a reasonable amount of
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11. (SBU) Provincial leaders in both provinces spoke proudly of
their efforts to raise the living standards of the Khmer
population to the level of their Vietnamese Kinh neighbors. They
attributed any lingering economic disparities to differences in
educational attainment and family size, and dismissed allegations
of discrimination as untrue. As proof of the efficacy of their
efforts, Chairman Hiep pointed out that the number of Khmer
families under the poverty line had dropped from 64 percent to
just 18 percent in little more than 10 years. This was just five
points higher than the poverty level for the province overall.
The poverty rate for Tra Vinh has dropped from 40 percent to 19
percent since 1992. Both provinces had relied heavily on funds
available from the central government under Program 135, started
in 1999 to help eliminate poverty among the ethnic minorities.
According to Vice Chairman Kim, the program was responsible for
3301 projects in Tra Vinh over the past four years, valued at more
than USD$5.1 million. He spoke of the importance of
infrastructure upgrades in terms of improving Khmer farmers'
ability to get their goods to market without being exploited by
Kinh middlemen.
12. (SBU) Provincial officials also ran through the usual litany
of programs available to ethnic minority groups throughout the
country, such as small grants and loans, and free medical care.
Ethnic minority students are eligible to receive a free education
through the secondary level at provincial ethnic minority boarding
schools. Elementary level boarding schools are located in each
district. Successful graduates are able to enter university
without sitting for the national entrance examination. Families
pay only expenses, while the government covers tuition. Of the
100 secondary school graduates in Tra Vinh each year, 40 enroll in
some sort of vocational training, while 30 go on to university.
The majority return to work in the local government. (Fifty
percent of the teachers at the boarding school are ethnic Khmer.)
Khmer pagodas also conduct primary education classes, equivalent
to Grades 1-5. Chairman Hiep hoped to convert a 3500-student
continuing education center/teacher training college into a
community college for Soc Trang in the near future, while Tra Vinh
has just established a community college with Canadian assistance.
Bilingual education is widely available in both provinces, as are
Khmer-language print and broadcast media.
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13. (SBU) While in Tra Vinh, the DCM visited the Southern
Secondary Pali Supplementary Education School, the only
institution of its kind in Vietnam. The two monks serving as
Director and Deputy Director were clearly nervous to be speaking
to what they described as the first diplomats to ever visit the
institution, and read mostly from prepared briefing papers.
Established in 1994, under the supervision of the Ministry of
Education and Training, the school is funded by the central GVN
and charges no tuition. The four-year course provides the
equivalent of a Grade 6-12 education in 11 subjects. A special
Khmer Ethnic Minority Committee sitting in Can Tho Province is
responsible for recruiting students each year from all over
southern Vietnam. More than 500 students have enrolled in the
school over the past nine years. Graduates are expected to either
return to their local pagodas to teach in primary education
programs, or else continue their studies at the university level.
The Director cited frequent exchanges between Theravada monks in
Soc Trang, Cambodia, and Burma, and said religious texts were
often exchanged as well, although these had to be cleared by the
provincial Committee for Religious Affairs.
14. (SBU) According to officials in both provinces, the Khmer tend
to cluster near Theravada Buddhist pagodas (92 in Soc Trang and
110 in Tra Vinh), but don't physically separate themselves from
the Vietnamese Kinh or Chinese. As is common in the Theravada
tradition, most Khmer males in the two provinces become monks at
some point, most often for two or three years prior to military
training. The DCM toured several Khmer pagodas, speaking to monks
and ordinary Khmer residents, and elicited no complaints of
discrimination or limitations on religious worship. Mission
officers frequently heard local residents speaking Khmer with one
another. Two Khmers from each province sit on the current
National Assembly. One of them serves on the legislative body's
Commission on Ethnic Minority Affairs. Khmers also fill many of
the People's Committee slots at the district level.
15. (SBU) Protestants and Catholics also seem to benefit from the
emphasis that both provincial governments place on harmony. There
are seven legal Protestant churches registered with the GVN-
recognized Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) in Soc
Trang, and two in Tra Vinh. Protestants not wanting to worship at
these churches are free to worship at home. ConGenoff visited one
of Tra Vinh's two Protestant churches on a main street during an
evening service. According to the pastor and members of the
congregation, there are fewer than 500 Protestants in Tra Vinh,
including 200 Khmer. Only 100 gathered in this particular church
every Sunday, but the pastor visited others in outlying areas for
smaller services in their homes on a regular basis. The
congregation reported no problems with freedom to worship, but did
complain that the government had never returned a confiscated
school on the church compound. Otherwise, they found Tra Vinh
officials to be cooperative and accommodating. The congregation
was in the process of building a new church to replace the
existing structure (built in 1945), but was dependent on funding
by mostly Korean benefactors.
16. (SBU) The DCM and ConGenoff also visited one of three large
Catholic churches in Tra Vinh that had been constructed by the
French in the early 20th century. While the buildings themselves
were quite ornate, they were in need of renovation and
maintenance. According to the priest with whom we spoke, the
church serves 5000 parishioners, with an overflow crowd on
Sundays. The last French priest had left in 1954, but the current
number of Vietnamese priests is sufficient to serve the parish.
The priest regretfully said there was not much to do anymore,
since the school had been confiscated and the church was unable to
undertake charitable activities.
17. (SBU) We were encouraged to see that the ethnic Khmer
communities in both Soc Trang and Tra Vinh appear to be thriving
culturally, if not economically. While one expects to hear
nothing but good things from provincial officials, the ordinary
Khmer we encountered told consistent, unforced stories of equal
opportunity and social and religious tolerance. These will
probably never be among the richest provinces in Vietnam, but the
provincial governments seem to be taking the right steps to
exploit whatever opportunities are available.
18. (SBU) Of the two provinces, Tra Vinh would seem to be slightly
more open to new ideas, as witnessed by the three foreign business
delegations meeting with local officials in our hotel. In
general, the provincial leadership in Soc Trang was a bit more
uptight, reading carefully from prepared scripts with talking
points on "hostile forces" and the Vietnam Human Rights Act. Just
up the coast in Tra Vinh, meanwhile, Vice Chairman Kim actually
started the meeting off with an offer to dispense with the usual
scripted briefing and go right into the discussion. He was
animated and excited to be talking about his province. Taking his
leave at lunch for a trip to Hanoi, he said he was glad we had
made the trip to see for ourselves that allegations of
discrimination were untrue and that the provincial administration
was committed to helping the Khmer.
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