Cablegate: Shrimp, Development and Minority Rights in Soc

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

REF: 03 HCMC 001100


1. (SBU) Shrimp farming in the coastal Mekong Delta province
of Soc Trang is driving economic growth and poverty
eradication. Beneficiaries include the large ethnic Khmer
minority. Reports from exile groups of disenfranchisement
and oppression of the Khmer appear out of date. The GVN
began a long-term effort to improve the conditions for the
Khmer in 1998, and the rapid growth of aquaculture has made
provided cash to the Khmer community as evidenced by
construction and rehabilitation of Khmer temples and
pagodas. Soc Trang leadership appeared both more confident
and more open than neighboring provinces and was frank about
both recent successes and ongoing challenges including a
growing HIV/AIDS problem. End Summary


2. (U) Consul General, Econoff, Conoff and Pol/Econ
specialist traveled through the coastal Mekong Delta,
visiting Soc Trang on December 4. A historically poor
coastal province, Soc Trang's population of over 1.2 million
includes majority ethnic Kinh (65 percent) as well as Khmer
(29 percent) and Chinese (6 percent) minorities. Per capita
income remains low at USD433, but GDP has been growing at
close to ten percent per year over the past four years as
marginal, salinized rice paddies have been turned into
highly productive small-holder shrimp farms. In 2003 alone,
aquaculture grew by 30 percent, with 11,000 additional
hectares converted to shrimp ponds, producing over USD300
million in export revenue. By 2010, provincial leaders plan
to have 80,000 hectares of aquaculture land.


3. (U) Saota Foods Joint-Stock Company (FIMEX VN) reported
that the sharp reductions in antidumping duties announced by
the US Department of Commerce on December 1 had an immediate
impact in Soc Trang. One of Vietnam's largest seafood
exporters, FIMEX processed and exported USD78 million in
shrimp from Soc Trang and neighboring provinces to the U.S.,
Japan and the E.U. in 2003. Preliminary antidumping duties
imposed by the USG at midyear cut 2004 exports to the US by
half to about USD 15 million. In the final determination,
FIMEX and other exporters representing over half of
Vietnam's production received a sharply reduced "separate"
rate of between four and five percent. Local shrimp prices
in Soc Trang immediately rose by five percent according to
FIMEX director Ho Quoc Luc, who is also the chairman of the
Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers
(VASEP). Luc anticipated a sharp rise in export volume and
prices paid to producers during the remaining month of 2004.
FIMEX operates six individual processing lines on a large
modern site in Soc Trang. The firm directly employs 3200
workers, 70 percent of whom are women, who earn USD40 to
USD65 per month, jobs which did not exist in the province
prior to the advent of aquaculture.


4. (U) According to official Vietnamese history, Soc Trang's
ethnic Khmer population and ethnic Kinh both appeared in the
region at about the same time in the early 17th century.
For their part, the Khmer claim to have been there much
longer. Whatever the case, the Khmer minority makes up a
distinct community organized around Theravada Buddhist
temples and pagodas that date back nearly 400 years. In our
first meetings with provincial officials, they claimed that
Khmer and ethnic Kinh are highly integrated today.
Subsequent discussions, including with the head of the
Provincial Committee on Minority Affairs (himself a Khmer)
indicated that the province is a salad bowl rather than a
melting pot. Ethnic Khmer and Chinese maintain their
respective languages but learn Vietnamese as well. The
Chinese continue to concentrate in commerce, while the Khmer
are mostly small farmers. Aquaculture is dominated by ethnic
Kinh, many of whom employ Khmer workers. We were told that
some of the most prosperous Khmer owned shrimp ponds
themselves. At FIMEX, Director Luc was proud to point out
the diversity of the firm. He is ethnic Kinh, the Vice
General Director was Chinese while his assistant/interpreter
was Khmer.

5. (U) First Vice-Chairman Nguyen Duy Tan and the heads of
the Religious Affairs and Minority Affairs Committees stated
that the Khmer had historically been disadvantaged and
impoverished. They credited the GVN's 1998 Program 135 with
changing the situation. Under this program the central
government provided sustained financing to build schools and
clinics, develop bilingual education and provide credit and
employment opportunities. The growth of aquaculture has
also contributed significantly to the welfare of this
community and the province. Poverty in Soc Trang has
decreased, with 19 percent of households falling under the
poverty line, compared with 65 percent in 1992. Poverty
among Khmer households is higher at 28 percent, but has
declined significantly from 42 percent as recently as 2001.

6. (U) To complement official meetings, CG and party took an
unannounced and unescorted lunchtime drive through two
heavily Khmer districts along the coast. Vinh Chau district
is home to over half of Soc Trang's Khmer population. The
majority Khmer province had extensive shrimp ponds in
paddies that formerly grew a single rice crop per year.
Crossing into the district, we drove over a large bridge
just completed on December 1, 2004. Roadwork is under way
and new power lines stretched from Soc Trang town to the
shore. Vinh Chau seemed representative of the rest of the
province - still poor, but developing quickly.

7. (SBU) We also visited two Khmer pagodas. The first visit
to Cha Tim Giua or Chrui Tum Kandal pagoda was unannounced
and unescorted. The Venerable Ly Huong was cautious in his
answers on ethnic relations but made clear that his
community has good access to bilingual education through the
high school level and to health clinics. The early 17th
century main temple is in excellent condition and the pagoda
is clearly active and a center of community life. A large
new temple hall is nearly complete and already in use for
services. The construction was funded entirely by
contributions from the community and young monks were busy
working with local contractors when we arrived.

8. (U) Soc Trang has 92 Khmer pagodas with an additional 36
worshipping houses. We later met officially with the Most
Venerable Duong Nhon and other members of the Executive
Board of the provincial Buddhist Sangha. While the meeting
was kept at a formal level, the picture of economic
development, religious life and ethnic relations was
consistent with what we had heard and seen elsewhere. We
asked about the Khmer Buddhists ties outside of Vietnam.
They said they had few contacts with Cambodia. Prior to the
Cambodian genocide, monks went to Cambodia for advanced
religious training. Since the genocide, some Cambodian
Buddhists have trained in Vietnam. The monks also said that
they had no contact with exile Khmer groups in the US or
Canada. Both the Vietnamese authorities and the monks told
us that they did not use the term "Khmer Krom," which they
said was a Cambodian and/or exile term with separatist


9. (U) Despite Soc Trang's recent solid growth, First Vice-
Chairman Nguyen Duy Tan said the province continued to face
problems mobilizing investment resources. He expressed
concern about the sustainability of growth due to the
general poverty of the province and shortcomings in
education, training, health care and infrastructure. The Soc
Trang authorities generally seemed eager to attract foreign
investment and development assistance

10. (U) HIV/AIDS is also a growing problem in Soc Trang.
Officials of the provincial Women's Union stated that since
1992 perhaps 10,000 women from the province have worked in
the sex trade in Cambodia or other cities in Vietnam and
neighboring countries or gone to Taiwan as brides. Some of
the women have returned to Soc Trang with HIV/AIDS and
spread the disease locally, they said. Women in Soc Trang
are now contracting HIV more frequently than men, and the
1,300 known HIV-positive cases may only be the tip of the
iceberg. The Women's Union was eager for assistance and
support for HIV/AIDS education and programs.


11. (SBU) Wealth from aquaculture is not equally distributed
in Soc Trang, but the rising shrimp tide is raising most
boats. As in 2003 (reftel), reports from overseas sources
of widespread discrimination and repression were not
supported by anything we saw on this visit. In fact, Khmer
Buddhist culture appears to be doing well, thanks to the
revenues from raising shrimp for American tables.


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