Cambodia's Anti-Vietnam Obsession
Buddhist monks burn Vietnamese flags made of paper as they protest near the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh (October 8, 2014).
Image Credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Cambodia's Anti-Vietnam Obsession


On June 21, 2015 a mixed contingent of soldiers and police descended upon Areyksat village in Kandal province to forcibly remove 55 houseboats and 10 houses on the river banks. Unlike other violent evictions — which are far from rare in Cambodia — the logic of removal was not to make way for development or infrastructure, but for “environmental reasons.” The people, all of whom happened to be ethnic Vietnamese, were purportedly “polluting the area” – which, according to local authorities, impacts on “local beauty” and “national and international tourism.” On one of the many pro Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) news channels that night, the news presenters gleefully presented the story, noting that “illegal immigrants have to respect the rule of law” and local authorities should be commended for “protecting the environment.” They even [incorrectly] added that a number of the evictees had been deported to Vietnam – to triumphant smiles.

Two weeks later, this small Vietnamese community was pondering where to go when a large group of students — flanked by government officials — came to clean up the area, walking around picking up litter. They cited the need for “citizens” to protect and clean the environment. In a bizarre scene “student environmentalists” joined soldiers in “cleaning up” the local “environment” (which really equated to a straight out eviction), to the astonished stares of the recently evicted.

It wasn’t the first time this Vietnamese community had been pushed away from the land they considered their home – since the early 1990s they had been forced to relocate several times. Although most in the community were in fact born in Cambodia, without proper identification they had few avenues to challenge the eviction.

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In Siem Reap’s Chong Kneas, Vietnamese floating villages have been cut off from land by the establishment of the Sou Ching boat port, which manages the 3,000 to 4000 tourists per month who come to visit Cambodia’s famed Tonle Sap lake. Since the construction of the port in 2008, the Vietnamese floating villages have been systematically excluded from the benefits of increasing tourist flows. The port was built on the premises that it would “clean up” and “develop” the area. The floating village, which the tourism industry paints as a quaint and exotic experience of river life for tourist consumption, is actually a highly vulnerable group of stateless people who are literally relegated to the water while being largely excluded from the land.

In Kompong Chnang, provincial authorities armed with master plans to “clean up” the city, are in the process of evicting around 1,000 ethnic Vietnamese on the premise that they are “degrading and polluting” the fragile riverside. Since 2000, Vietnamese floating villages have gone up and down the Tonle Sap River, being pushed out and evicted by authorities under the guise of “environmental protection.”

In August, Radio Free Asia reported that in Kratie authorities were “finally” formulating a plan to clean up the riverside (along the Mekong) and in particular deal with the “unregulated and polluting” Vietnamese residents who have taken up residence along the river. (In reality, fishing villages are comprised of Khmer and Cham immigrants as well. Some, such as Kompong Luong in Pursat are mixed, while those in Kompong Chnang and Siem Reap tend to be more segregated.)

Clearly there are commonalities between these stories. Vietnamese who happen to live on the water are in an ever tenuous position at the confluence of statelessness, a livelihood dependence on fishing, a lack of any legal claim to the places they reside, increasing state management of these formerly unregulated places, and of course a pervasive public sentiment which seeks to scrutinize the presence of ethnic Vietnamese who live in Cambodian territory.

Unlike evictions in urban settings, or of the rural poor, these evictions largely go unnoticed and without comment. NGOs do not flock to the cause of poor Vietnamese evictees. No colorful protests are made, no international media come to document their plight. People on Khmer radio don’t angrily demand justice. Academics working on evictions largely ignore them. Vietnamese who speak out do not become household names. In most cases they quietly agree to eviction orders and move on.

My aim of bringing up these small snippets – which of course are entirely lacking in complexity – is not to try and carve out Viet-Cambodians as the latest vulnerable group for NGOs or researchers to victimize (another group to add to Cambodia’s seemingly never ending list of “the vulnerable”). Rather, it is to draw attention to a manifestation of a central pivot of Cambodian politics which remains largely understudied and under-discussed – the posturing of Vietnamese as a territorial threat to the future of the Khmer community. My aim in bringing up this issue at a time when Cambodia is plagued by seemingly much larger problems is to draw attention to the way in which diverse issues within Cambodia continue to be articulated in relation to a deep suspicion and hatred of the Vietnamese. Cambodia is currently at a critical juncture leading up to the 2018 elections and while democracy, human rights, governance, and legitimacy will all be central aspects of both analysis and activism, few are willing to acknowledge how deeply anti-Vietnamese sentiment has saturated Cambodian politics.

Everyone Is Entitled to a Little Fascism

Comparing the colonial state and the post-colonial state, one of the key defying features of the latter is that the authority and sovereign right to brutally deal with unwanted populations deemed outside the political community is entrusted entirely to the post-colonial state. Small states such as Cambodia may be under enormous pressure to enter into bilateral and multilateral trade deals, which severely emasculate notions of sovereignty; they can be forced to engage in lengthy and vague programs of democracy building and good governance; they can have their entire bureaucracies built and crisscrossed with foreign NGOs, development experts, and foreign consultants; they can be under pressure to grant huge swathes of land to foreign investors; to re-create parts of the country as a large amusement park for the pleasure of foreign tourists; to celebrate wave after wave of foreign NGOs and humanitarians doing banal and ill thought out development projects; even in accepting unwanted refugees from bigger countries. But the one thing that can never be taken away is nationalism and the dream of sovereignty. Cambodia may be a poor, economically and politically marginalized state that has been colonized by the Thai, Vietnamese, and French (and the international community through NGOs and donors) but in the current system even small states can despotically rule over their territories and populations, needing only to cite sovereignty.

The colonial dream to resurrect an ancient culture in decline, to restore old territorial boundaries, to have absolute control of who is (and who is not) allowed to move across borders, and to restore political power to the legitimate Khmer ruling class is alive and well in modern day Cambodia. Although Cambodians are typically viewed within international media and academic research as victims — of the Khmer Rouge, of a kleptocratic regime, of land abuse, of gender inequality, and of climate change — Cambodia, just like any other real country, is also home to anti-immigrant populist movements, racism, and bigotry. And here is one of the most appealing things about ultra-nationalism — people may be illiterate and excluded from a decent education, from healthcare, from dignified work, from the spoils of kleptocracy, but the one thing everyone can engage in is nationalism. You do not need to be educated or part of the elite to join in hating Vietnamese.

Forests may fall, the landless may be increasing day by day, those abandoned by the state may engage in ever more precarious and dangerous labor, yet it consistently seems to be issues around immigration and removing foreign Vietnamese influence from government structures that public sentiment remains fixated upon. So pervasive and ubiquitous is the idea that Vietnam – and more specifically Vietnamese people – are the root cause of Cambodia’s woes that such a sentiment can be found among progressive NGOs, forest activists, local authorities, land activists, the rich, and the governing elite alike.

When the popular political analyst Kem Lay was tragically gunned down in Phnom Penh last month, bereaved onlookers, wary of police interfering with crucial evidence, attempted to stop an officer from moving the body. What was strange though was the angry crowd’s decision to scream “yuon” (a derogatory term for Vietnamese) at police, accusing them of being Vietnamese. How they could so quickly and unanimously decide – without any particularly compelling evidence – that the officer was Vietnamese solely on the basis that he was doing something seen as deeply threatening to a cherished Khmer hero says a lot about common ideas of the Vietnamese. Such an accusation coming from angry crowds is far from uncommon – during the 2014 protests, protestors at Freedom Park taunted security guards by calling them “yuon” for a similar reason (even though they were actually Khmer) – which in turn elicited a violent response. On more than one occasion such an accusation has resulted in group beatings – even killing the accused, or the ransacking of property for no other reason than the owners were Vietnamese.

Most disturbingly, it is not just angry crowds or protesters who hold such views. Suspicion – even outright hatred – of Vietnamese is not uncommon within activist circles and progressive NGOs. On multiple occasions I have witnessed Khmer NGO staff who work in organizations that are at the forefront of land, natural resource, and human rights issues engaging in tirades aimed at Vietnamese without being challenged. Or recently, during a trip to Prey Lang with forest activists, I was forced to endure a long tedious rant by a young forest activist with links to Mother Nature and part of Kem Ley’s “young political analyst group” about how the Vietnamese are the real cause of Cambodia’s mismanaged forests. Even at Politikocoffee,  a weekly forum set up by young Cambodian liberals and bloggers, it is still almost impossible to have a conversation about the issue of the Vietnamese in Cambodia without evoking nationalist sentiments and strong emotions on Vietnamese “illegally crossing the border.”

The problem here is that ultra-nationalism has quietly colonized emerging opposition to the current regime. So entrenched is the idea that the current regime is a Vietnamese puppet (i.e. it is quintessentially opposed to Khmerness) that opposition to the Hun Sen regime and opposition to Vietnamese are too often one and the same thing. Cambodia’s swing to China — not to mention French colonialism, NGO colonialism, the role of China during the Khmer Rouge period, historic Thai invasions, and the fact that Cambodia actually gained land from the Champassak kingdom of southern Laos — are all ignored. Instead, a persistent political discourse draws a seemingly undeniable line between the loss of ancestral Khmer land (Kampuchea Krom land in the Vietnamese southern delta, Koh Tral island off the coast of Kampot, and more recently a much smaller area of contested land along the eastern border) and the post Khmer Rouge Vietnamese backed regime and more recent problems of corruption and natural resource mismanagement. This alluringly simple thesis seems always to be lurking beneath the surface of popular sentiment – why is Cambodia small? Yuon! Why is Cambodia poor? Yuon! Why are forests and natural resource mismanaged? Youn! … Why do I have a stomach ache? Yuon!

Do Vietnamese Lives Matter?

There has been some English language media on the Cambodia National Rescue Party and particularly Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s exploitation of anti–Vietnamese sentiment. But it is important to note that anti-Vietnamese sentiment goes well and truly beyond just the CNRP. Leader of the League for Democracy Party Khem Veasna (which hooked just over 1 percent of votes in the 2013 elections, to make it the fourth biggest party) is renowned for bizarre anti-immigrant rants (always directed solely at the yuon) that would make Donald Trump embarrassed. The recent rise of Soun Serey Ratha’s Khmer Power Party is similarly explicitly based around “kicking out the youn from Cambodia.” Even Som Sovanara — an exiled former RCAF soldier who has been calling for an overthrow of the military from Canada — always emphasizes the urgency of “freeing Cambodians from the Vietnamese puppet regime.”

There is nothing new about this – the persecution and violent scapegoating of Vietnamese has been the mainstay of Cambodian politics since the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s. The violent massacres of Viet Cambodians in 1970 at the hands of Lon Nol — which Cambodians have almost entirely managed to collectively forget — were remarkable for the fact that General Lon Nol was able to exploit anti-Vietnamese sentiment to lessen mass resentment over the fact that for the first time in 1,000 years the beloved monarchy had been done away with. So too, new research — and especially new evidence  appearing at the Khmer Rouge tribunal — is showing the Khmer Rouge regime not just as a paranoid self-destructive killing machine, but a regime whose ultimate downfall and mass killings resulted from the deeply biopolitical goal of systematically eliminating Vietnamessness from the Cambodian political community. Not a single Vietnamese who stayed in Cambodia during the Democratic Kampuchea regime is thought to have survived and it is for this reason that the term “genocide” is being used in relations to the regime’s purging of the Vietnamese.

It is clear though that Cambodian public sentiment – which has been supported through international media – is struggling to acknowledge the suffering of non-Khmer groups during this time and the role that ultra-nationalism played in perpetuating violence. That people can still get away with claiming that the Khmer Rouge’s savagery was somehow due to Vietnamese infiltration is absurd – not only because this is the very discourse that the KR themselves used to violently weed out “foreign elements,” but because it totally disavows violence against Vietnamese.

Contrary to popular sentiment, it could also be argued that the 1990s were an important era which normalized marginalization and hatred of Vietnamese in Cambodian politics. A popular trope of opposition politicians and political analysts is that the post KR regime ushered in a mass immigration of Vietnamese under the tutelage of first the Vietnamese army and then the Hun Sen regime. Here is not the place to debate these claims – which are typically accompanied with exaggeration, heady emotions, nationalistic fervor, and straight out racism (see here, though, for a good discussion). Like most issues in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s CPP had a political interest in deferring and failing to promote any sensible discussions or policies on the Vietnamese in Cambodia, which essentially allowed all those opposed to the CPP to monopolize the issue. Yet even then a number of laws were progressively released that increasingly excluded Vietnamese Cambodians and made them stateless and disenfranchised. There were also numerous state led attempts to “crack down” on Vietnamese immigration in and around Phnon Penh, which merely resulted in more evictions of Vietnamese Cambodians.

In the chaos and violence of the ‘90s, as the UN forces (UNTAC) clumsily tried to stitch together a peace agreement and set Cambodia on its democratic experiment, violence toward Vietnamese and their political exclusion became normalized amidst increasingly extremist anti-Vietnamese views. Not only the Khmer Rouge, but other non-government forces, such as FUNCINPEC and the KPLNF, were virulently anti-Vietnamese. The 1993 Khmer Rouge massacre of 33 Vietnamese in Siem Reap’s Chong Kneas was not only remarkable for its brutality (the killing of unarmed men, women, and children) but for the fact that none of the political factions demonstrated any sympathy for the victims and could even come out calling for a stop to Vietnamese immigration in the days after (even though all the victims were born in Cambodia).  So too a vicious attack on a Vietnamese floating village in Kompong Chnang as late as 1998 never saw any justice for the victims of the massacre (even though the perpetrators publicly acknowledged their involvement – they are now in the RCAF) and the event has largely been forgotten by the public. Such attacks on Vietnamese were common throughout the 1990s. Just in 1992 and 1993, 130 Vietnamese were killed, and 75 seriously injured in racially targeted attacks across Cambodia (not all of these were done on the part of the Khmer Rouge). Compare this to the 1997 attack on Sam Rainsy’s Khmer National Party rally, which resulted in the deaths between 16 and 20 people and which has been immortalized in public discourse.

Famed political analyst and independent researcher Kem Lay, who was tragically shot dead in central Phnom Penh last month, is perhaps a good measure of contemporary political views toward Vietnamese in Cambodia. Kem Lay’s analyses, which were frequently broadcast on Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, were remarkable for the fact that they could link almost any issue to the Vietnamese – and in fact it was rare for Kem Lay not to bring up the Vietnamese in one of his talks. Although brave, straight to the point, and refreshingly dismissive of the type of bureaucratic and governmental approaches that usually dominate discussions of major problems in Cambodia, his research was hardly structured or critical. In some cases he would simply wander around the Tonle Sap or Phnom Penh’s Chbar Apov, taking note of Vietnamese speakers as if it were self-evident they are illegally residing in Cambodia and should be deported. He often talked of Vietnamese immigration as “a disease” inflicting Cambodians. His five point thesis on how the Vietnamese are destroying Cambodia was a tired and factually incorrect piece that only stirred up racists myths. His 100 Day Campaign was similarly structured around encouraging Cambodians to observe and record instances of Vietnamese “colonizing Cambodia.” His fables and village talks were full of subtle – yet obvious to Khmer speakers – references to Vietnam trying to swallow up Cambodia and in this way he perpetuated and exploited a widespread ignorance toward the Vietnamese (and more broadly a misconception about the contemporary relationship between Vietnamese and Cambodia).

That his research legacy is now being held up an example to Cambodian youth is extremely disturbing and suggests it will be a long time before more reasonable and sensible conversations about the issue can be publicly held. It is also noticeable that the English media has entirely failed to pick up not just on the nuances of his legacy but his fairly blatant anti-Vietnamese obsession. Meanwhile popular radio stations such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of Democracy blatantly promote his anti-Vietnamese views, although the increasing popularity of more measured analysts such as Meas Ny is a positive sign.

Returning back to the snippets of Vietnamese evictions this essay started with, it also has to be questioned to what degree NGOs, donors, and foreign consultants and experts — who are so present in Cambodia — have also ignored the issue of Vietnamese marginalization. During the UNTAC period, the UN was not only logistically unable to provide protection to the Vietnamese but also unwilling to politically tackle anti-Vietnamese violence. More recently there has been a deafening silence on the part of large NGOs and donors who have shown a willingness to involve themselves in almost every aspect of Cambodia’s development, from how rural people defecate to what they think of climate change.

Take the above mentioned evictions around the Tonle Sap and Mekong. Cambodia’s leading human rights NGOs — CCHR, LICHADO, and ADHOC — have been eerily quiet on all of these evictions. For most NGOs and the international development community operating in Cambodia, the  problems facing Cambodia’s stateless Vietnamese — and the very real possibility of violence toward them —  do not register as an issue at all. Yet as political analyst Ou Virak has recently pointed out, as one of the few people to publicly criticize anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodian politics, “anti-Vietnamese theories” are popular “among the people, and everyone knows it.”

There are obvious and increasing tensions leading up to the 2018 elections in Cambodia. It is more than likely the CPP regime will be unable to secure the mass patronage of voters that it needs to win an election. The question is how it will react? It is hard not to see political killings such as that of Kem Ley as a clear message to the populace that fear and violence remain as important mechanisms of control. The recent Kafkeresque use of courts and the law to suppress dissent also demonstrates the CPPs continual dependence on the use of state apparatuses to stifle opposition. There are also disturbing indicators that the RCAF could be employed to “protect against” what it deems as a threat to the government and CPP – which certainly would not be unprecedented.

The other risk that no one talks about, though, is that increasing dissatisfaction and opposition to the regime will be expressed through anti- Vietnamese rhetoric – as it has been in every single election since 1993. That no one is willing to stand up for scapegoated Vietnamese — and that an anti-Vietnamese fascist-like movement has spread through Facebook and online media, emboldened by a new generation of Khmer activists — is indicative of future violence. With the CNRP already supporting members to scrutinize polling stations for non-Khmers, and different groups organizing for ways to ensure that “truckloads of Vietnamese” do not come to illegally vote (popularly seen as the most likely way the CPP will rig the vote), it seems more than likely that prejudices will flare during the election period and the Vietnamese are likely to bear the brunt.

The sad tragedy is that in fact hundreds of thousands of Viet Cambodians are already disenfranchised and with such limited political space to discuss the issue, any fair and just resolution remains far off in the future. Another important question is what would happen to Viet Cambodians if the CNRP did get into power. Would it be pressured into draconian and extreme measures to exclude Vietnamese Cambodians? Nearby Myanmar should be seen as a warning. What has happened to the Rohingya is a clear example of what happens when the state exploits fascisms for political gain – although it would not be for the first time that this has happened in Cambodia.

Tim Frewer is a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney who has been working and researching in Cambodia over the last decade.

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