The Truth About Anti-Vietnam Sentiment in Cambodia

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The Truth About Anti-Vietnam Sentiment in Cambodia

A closer look at a subject that often does not get enough sustained attention.

Two insightful articles have appeared in recent months renewing the debate about anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia. On September 6, Tim Frewer published a lengthy piece in the Diplomat. Then, Paul Millar wrote in Southeast Asia Globe’s October issue an article focused on how the issue is gaining prominence as Cambodia prepares for local elections next year and a general election in 2018. My intention here is not to review but to appendage. Having said that, paraphrasing is in order, and, even before that, one must explain what is meant by anti-Vietnamese chauvinism.

Millar began with the obvious: the word yuon. Irrespective of how much members of the political opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), might disagree, it is a word frequently used pejoratively to mean the Vietnamese. Millar then went on to explore the implication of the word. For example, in February 2014, a Cambodian man of Vietnamese descent was beaten to death on the streets of Phnom Penh when a traffic accident involving his younger brother turned into a violent, anti-Vietnamese mob. This was by no means an isolated attack. At a more political level, Frewer is correct when he says 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… that opposition to the Hun Sen regime and opposition to Vietnamese are too often one and the same thing.” Anti-Vietnamese sentiment is also expressed for irredentist reasons, with many Cambodians believing that land currently belonging to Vietnam should be returned to Cambodia.

One perspective of how anti-Vietnamese chauvinism developed is because of a conflict of two nationalisms. They follow thusly: the nationalism of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was created in 1979 when, with its Vietnamese backers, a small band of former Khmer Rouge cadres returned to Cambodia to oust the Pol Pot regime. This small band, composed of those who have led the country ever since, including Hun Sen, were the liberators, the overthrowers of tyranny and genocide, and deserve to be treated as such by the populace. The implication, as frequently expressed by the CPP, is not only do all Cambodians owe their lives to the government, but if the CPP should fall from power the country may once again fall into tyranny (giving rise to the idea held by the government that any criticism of its rule is distinctly treasonous). Gratitude for and fear of the past, therefore, are this nationalism’s chief components.

The opposing nationalism, usually taken up by the CNRP, is more complex and historical. But I’ll try to condense it. Propagated by French colonizers in the late 19th and early 20th century, Cambodians began to see themselves, at the same time, as a people capable of building one of the world’s most advanced societies (the Khmer Empire) and of being consumable by their neighbors (Vietnam and Thailand). The arrogance of history was equaled only by the despondence of the present. The course of the 20th century, however, cemented this fear with the Vietnamese, not the Thais (one rarely hears in the present-day of a Thai threat). There are many possibilities for why this is, though one suspects the French played a large role in sowing distrust amongst the people it ruled. The French decision to employ the Vietnamese as administrators and favored laborers in colonized Cambodia must also be a factor, as must the decision to hand over swathes of Cambodia to Vietnamese rule, and role of the Vietminh from the 1950s onwards.

This nationalist trope gained prominence amongst the opposition to the rule of Sihanouk, led to the pogroms conducted during the Lon Nol period, and was the only rallying cry the Khmer Rouge had left after it had tortured and starved the populace. That the CPP came to power with the support of the Vietnamese assistance was for many the prophecy being fulfilled: it was no liberation or intervention, but an imperial occupation. Thus, according to the thinking, not only have the Vietnamese always hoped to colonize Cambodia, but the survival of the entire country rests on fighting against this. (Here one discovers incongruity: either the Vietnamese are already controlling Cambodia through the CPP or desire to do so by themselves, so one would contradict the other, though few nationalist myths are thoroughly coherent.)

Vietnam, therefore, was the harbinger of Cambodia’s “Dark Age,” the great spoiler of Cambodia’s historic past, and the antagonist in an apocalyptic future. Sam Rainsy summed up such thinking when, in 2013, he stated: “All compatriots – this is the last opportunity, if we don’t rescue our nation, four or five years more is too late, Cambodia will be full of Vietnamese, we will become slaves of Vietnam.” But perhaps the main problem is that these two dichotomous nationalisms are so dominant, and so politicized, that it has prevented a more modern, unifying, and less racialist sense of nationhood from forming.

Consider what a UN human rights officer had to say in the 1990s: “As conceptions of nationhood slipped away, Cambodians seemed to grab on to whatever they could find by which to define themselves as a nation. For many, hatred of the Vietnamese… filled this function. Hatred was not merely the residue of prejudice; it seemed a defining element of Cambodian identity.” And now consider what Billy Tai, a Cambodia-based human rights consultant, told Southeast Asia Globe just this month: “[The CNRP is] not developing proper policies to contest the elections, they are exploiting the entrenched anti-Vietnamese sentiment that’s been embedded within the Khmer psyche for generations and it’s working – the very unfortunate thing is that it’s working.”

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote, quite accurately, that “when people have tried everything and have discovered that nothing works, they will tend to revert to what they know best – which will often be the tribe, the totem, or the taboo.” Indeed, what we see now is b’do (the CNRP’s 2013 rallying cry, meaning “change”) muffled into silence by the party’s other cry, yuon. At a time when the CNRP is struggling to come up with new policies to distinguish itself from the CPP (admittedly because the CPP appropriated many of its previous policies) and when its activists are finding it difficult to go into the provinces and win voters, the party has mustered some 2,000 observers “to screen the process for suspected foreigners – even those possessing valid Cambodian identity cards,” as Millar wrote.

Of course, the CPP is also engaged in an effort to win support from immigrants; it has promised many of the 160,000 immigrants legal residency, presumably along with a word of advice that “you better vote for us.” This was the exact same promise Sam Rainsy made in April 2014, a promise he now seems to have forgotten. Still, on the Vietnam issue, Sam Rainsy has been known to change his mind. In 1993, he was quoted as saying: “Maybe youn is slightly pejorative. But it’s a habit and I am not here to educate the people.” Whereas in 2014, after years of saying the word wasn’t pejorative, his brief campaign to reach out a hand to Vietnamese immigrants became an endeavor to “educate Khmer people, these are Khmer citizens as you and I and we must respect their rights.”

Two additional points need to be made here. First, the Vietnam issue has led the CNRP down the path of sophistry. Few of Hun Sen’s actions in recent years suggest a hegemonic Vietnam. Quite the opposite, in fact. That Cambodia has been dubbed a client state of China and has been harangued for its “support” of China in the South China Sea dispute is a reminder of who its foreign friends are. But this fact is not even acknowledged by the CNRP, which instead chooses to overlook the relationship between the Hun Sen government and Vietnam’s adversary. If the party can square the circle for such an important issue as foreign policy what else is it capable of? Is the issue of Vietnam so blinding?

Second, as I have pointed out in the pages of the Diplomat before, in private an opposition politician informed me the party’s use of anti-Vietnamese sentiment is more political than heartfelt, that is essentially is an easy way of securing votes. One can doubt this, however. (Though, even if were true, the use of chauvinism for political gain reduces the standing of any politician, in my eyes at least.) A detail often overlooked when discussing anti-Vietnamese sentiment amongst the opposition is the centrality of Vietnam in the political career of those individuals. Simple calculations show that politicians in their 50s would have been teenagers in 1979, and those in their 60s, young adults. For many, the anti-Vietnamese cause of the 1980s was the first taste of politics. Take Sam Rainsy for example. One needn’t to exert too much effort to find that the Vietnam question was germinal for his political development.

If an autobiography is a person’s plea to the world, then his We Didn’t Start The Fire is a good place to start. A general reader might notice, for instance, that he dedicates only a few pages to exploring the years between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were busy destroying much of Cambodia, and when Sam Rainsy was still living in Paris. Yet the entire fifth chapter is reserved for the years between 1979 and 1989. In 1982, he and his wife joined a Cambodian delegation to the UN General Assembly in New York to lobby against the UN recognizing the new “pro-Vietnam regime.” They were successful, which meant, effectively, the Khmer Rouge, along with other elements, was still recognized as the legitimate government.

Here, Sam Rainsy writes that the delegation he was part of, and one assumes supported, “took the view that the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge did not provide a justification for recognizing the occupying regime.” Very well, but this meant that he literally had to sit at the same table as those who had just massacred a quarter of the population of his homeland. “Former foreign minister Ieng Sary kept grinning at us. Part of me wanted to make him laugh in pain,” he recalls. One never wishes to admonish a politician who can engage in cognitive dissonance, for it is a necessary skill in politics, but neither can one avoid the conclusion that for Sam Rainsy the lesser evil lay in breaking bread with genocidal criminals rather than accepting Vietnamese interference in his country. Sam Rainsy also admits that his experience in 1982 proved how “naive I was in the political arts,” an indication, perhaps, that this was his germinal moment.

Despite all of this, an important question is worth asking: Should one wish for all utterances of the word yuon or anti-Vietnamese rhetoric to be silenced? Of course not. Freedom of speech must be allowed, if it is to be allowed at all, for comments one abhors. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t criticize it to the fullest extent possible when it does arise, which the English-language media frequently does, much to the CNRP’s annoyance.

However, a larger problem, as Frewer notes, is that there are few voices in Cambodia, even amongst the progressive elements, that speak out against such anti-Vietnamese sentiment. Credit must be given to Frewer, whose article, as he acknowledges, was rather original in that it drew attention to the anti-Vietnamese sentiment expressed by the murdered political analyst Kem Ley. Thousands attended his funeral procession in Phnom Penh and his murder was headline-worthy across the world. But, as Frewer wrote, Kem Ley wasn’t above speaking of the Vietnamese as a “disease” or as “colonizing Cambodia,” nor above the nationalist tropes used by the anti-CPP. “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,” Frewer wrote.

He went on: “Suspicion – even outright hatred – of Vietnamese is not uncommon within activist circles and progressive NGOs… 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.’” I have come to a similar conclusion after similar conversations. One can glimpse it at the most banal moments of life. A few months ago, after being picked up by a taxi from a Kampot hotel located next to the home of CNRP politician Mu Sochua, the driver, with whom I have spoken politics before, gestured towards the house and informed me that he supported her work, a statement quickly followed with: “I do not like yuon.” One often gets the impression that support for the CNRP is corollary with loathing of the Vietnamese. Though, as early as September 2014, the Phnom Penh Post reported in an article titled “Out of 20 of my friends, 17 hate the Vietnamese” that such chauvinism among the young is beginning to change, albeit very slowly.

The final, and perhaps most important, question is if the CNRP wins the 2018 election, what then? It is relatively innocuous for politicians in opposition to protest on the Cambodia-Vietnamese border (despite facing arrest for doing so) or to rally against immigrants, but should the same people make the same irredentist claims when in power, it would be by no means a trivial matter. To take the claims to their logical conclusion, would a CNRP government force the issue of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border on the international stage, say at an international court? Or, worse, through the threat of force? Would it seek to deport thousands of Vietnamese nationals living in Cambodia, as Sam Rainsy threatened to do years ago: “If I win this election, I will send the yuon immigrants back.” Or jeopardize the bilateral trade between the two nations, which was worth $3.37 billion last year? What’s more, if the CNRP is genuine in its anti-Vietnamese nationalism, would this manifest itself in its foreign policy? Sam Rainsy has already said a CNRP government would take the side of China in the South China Sea dispute, creating problems for the party’s natural ally, the United States.

At the end of the day, though, one cannot help but conclude that the CNRP’s reinvigorated anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is a sign of weakness. Instead of focusing on what the Cambodian people need – progressive social policies, meaningful reforms, and a robust party that might be able to usher in the first peaceful transition of power in Cambodian history – it is engaged in gutter politics. And, even if one concedes that illegal immigration and the desire the return historic lands to Cambodia are concerns for the Cambodian people, the CNRP must also accept that there are more pressing concerns and more gaping problems that need to be addressed beforehand. Nor must it forget that the 2,946,176 votes it received in 2013 were not just because of historic hatred but because of a desire for a better future. It is now beginning to feel as though the 2018 general election is the CPP’s to lose, rather than the CNRP’s to win, unless the opposition changes track, sooner rather than later.