Cambodia’s Ethnic Vietnamese Continue to Live in the Shadow of Discrimination and Hatred

During the last two national elections, both Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party fought for votes with the same slogan. If the CPP won, they warned, “the yuon are coming.” Today, the CPP remains in power-but so too does the bigotry those slogans tried to tap. Caught between their homeland and their new home, many of Cambodia’s estimated 100,000 ethnic Vietnamese-often referred to by the slur “yuon”-cling to scraps of national life, trying hard to stay out of sight but knowing they are rarely out of mind.

“The ordinary Khmers think we are just temporary residents. Some think we are land thieves and curse us,” Vietnamese immigrant Nguyen Veing Nhon said.

A fisherman and president of the Vietnamese Association in his adopted home of Chhnok Tru commune in Kompong Chhnang province, Nguyen Veing Nhon, 49, moved to this floating village on the edge of the Tonle Sap lake five years ago because “life in Vietnam was not enough.”

Things are a little better here-but just barely, Nguyen Veing Nhon said. In early June, provincial authorities accused Vietnamese families of polluting the lake and threatened to move them, deporting illegal immigrants along the way. That would displace more than 3,000 people.

Nguyen Veing Nhon has been through this before.

“A few years ago, the provincial authorities threatened to move us. But fortunately, the human rights groups said, ‘The Vietnamese are human beings. You have to treat them as such,'” he said.

Still, a threat is a threat and it hangs over the community, Nguyen Veing Nhon said.
“We think, where can we stay? What will we do?” he said.

Unfortunately, activists and observers say, these questions confront ethnic and migrant Vietnamese all too often.

Many ethnic Khmer Cambodians, like “natives” in countries around the world, are hostile to immigrants and minorities. But anti-Vietnamese hatred is something unto itself.

While Khmer-language newspapers wail about “invasions” of Vietnamese immigrants, ethnic Vietnamese-even those born in Cambodia-are routinely denied education and citizenship, and “yuon” pops up even in polite conversations. Khmer slang for indigestion is “Vietnamese stomach.” Cambodia’s brothels teem with trafficked Vietnamese women and girls, and many Khmers use “prostitute” and “Vietnamese girl” as synonyms.

Although reports of anti-Vietnamese violence have declined in recent years, other means of attack are just as hateful-if more subtle, activists say.

Many threats, like the proposed Kompong Chhnang evictions, come from the government. In 1999, Phnom Penh cut an entire floating village of Vietnamese adrift on the Tonle Bassac and the municipal government has recently said it would expel foreigners who were living here illegally-a directive critics say targets the mostly Vietnamese brothel workers.

Last month, Phnom Penh court officials, having discovered 14 Vietnamese women and girls who had allegedly been sold into sexual slavery and smuggled across the border, promptly charged the victims with being illegal immigrants. The women and girls all face prison if convicted.

“This is all discrimination,” said Phuong Seth, executive director of the aid group Vigilance, which defends the rights of ethnic minorities.

Ethnic Vietnamese complain of shakedowns and police brutality.

“Cambodian authorities eat so much money,” Buddhist laymen Ng Van Xien, 53, said, speaking from a floating pagoda in Chhnok Tru commune.

The police are the worst, Nguyen Veing Nhon said.

“Many kinds of authorities come to extort our money. The immigration police, the military and the economic police create a lot of trouble for us,” Nguyen Veing Nhon said.

For the average ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, the hatred makes a hard life all the more terrifying, Phoung Seth said.

“He doesn’t know, when he goes outside his house, or his village, or his district, if he will get arrested,” Phoung Seth said.

It’s a lesson Vo Van Lung, 71, says he has learned the hard way over decades. The leader of a Cao Dai sect in Phnom Penh, Vo Van Lung and his followers rarely step outside the maze-like compound wall off Mao Tse-tung Boulevard that protects their shrine from sight.

“I stay inside the temple,” Vo Van Lung said.

Even so, neighbors trash the Cao Dais’ posters, and the temple grounds-which once filled a city block-have repeatedly been hacked away, Vo Van Lung said. During the last forced grab, in 1998, officials announced themselves by plowing through a garden wall with a bulldozer.

“The soldiers and people took it all. And we didn’t have enough people to stop them,” Vo Van Lung said.

Some government officials counter they are merely trying to save what little is left of Cambodia for Khmers. If the Vietnamese were interested in being full citizens, they would assimilate to Khmer culture, some say.

“They are more into creating their own villages and do not understand the culture they’re living in,” Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay said. “That’s dangerous.”

This is an old argument in both undeveloped and developed countries. In France earlier this year, reactionary politician Jean-Marie LePen stunned the world by winning a presidential nomination on an anti-immigrant platform.

Countries built by immigrants are not immune to backlashes, either. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whom many pundits considered politically dead just months ago, saved his candidacy when he set an entire ship of asylum seekers adrift on the ocean. Australia, one of Cambodia’s biggest donors, has now set up its own branch of federal police here to curb illegal immigration.

And the US spends billions of dollars on border patrols and has often thrown up barriers to prevent poor people from entering the country.

But the Vietnamese “question” in Cambodia is unique. Relative to Cambodia, Vietnam is a wealthy and powerful country. This is an inverse of the usual story of immigration, where residents of poor countries flock to wealthier countries.

To Khmer nationalists like Son Chhay, the issue is a basic matter of survival, an issue frozen in a cycle of diminishing returns. For the opposition legislator, the problem is one of race, not racism. If the government wants to curb racism, he said, they will do more to reassure long-suffering Khmers they are not being overrun by their traditional enemies.

“Without serious action by the government, Cambodia will soon move closer to a deeper problem: We will be a minority in our own land,” Son Chhay said. “In the long run, I think racial hatred will occur.”

Like immigrant groups through history, some ethnic Vietnamese are divided over assimilation. Tran Ming Hung, 38, and his wife Le Thi Tham, 34, run a floating Vietnamese school in Chhnok Tru commune. They both acknowledge there is a linguistic and cultural barrier that hurts their cause, but each have different ideas on how to solve it.

Tran Ming Hung wants to recruit people who can close the gap.

“The problem is we don’t have anybody who speaks Khmer fluently. It means we cannot understand one another,” he said.

But the ethnic Vietnamese have a right to their own culture, Le Thi Tham argues back. And they have enough problems already.

“We have our own conditions, our own children to take care of,” she said.

Besides, it’s doubtful the government would help the Vietnamese adapt-if the resistance they’ve encountered while running the school is any indication, Le Thi Tham said.

“No, they have not created a good environment for us. I think the Chinese community is more of a priority than us. In the past few years, I’ve grown weary from the paperwork,” she said.

Part of the problem in Cambodia is people cannot separate ethnic Vietnamese from the government of Vietnam, Phoung Seth said. This only makes worse long-standing conflict between the Khmer and their neighbors, he said.

Observers sometimes call Vietnam “the Prussia of Asia,” a reference to the 19th century German state that built an empire and caused two world wars. The government of Vietnam has for centuries snatched territory from its weaker neighbors. Its decade-long occupation of Cambodia through the 1980s aggravated older wounds, like the loss of Kampuchea Krom. Ethnic and migrant Vietnamese are for many the visible symbols of these humiliations, and therefore bear the brunt of Khmer rage, Phoung Seth said.

“I think people don’t think about the conflict in terms of government, but in terms of people,” Phoung Seth said.

Ironically, anti-Vietnamese hatred sometimes pushes ethnic and migrant Vietnamese closer to the country they fled or have never really known. The Vietnamese Embassy, for instance, has actively encouraged ethnic Vietnamese to form associations like the one in Chhnok Tru, Nguyen Veing Nhon said.

This, in turn, further antagonizes Khmer nationalists, who see the groups as foreign forces and demand further crackdowns. For now, some migrant and ethnic Vietnamese regard such attacks with nervous silence, putting a wary faith in the Vietnamese government to protect them.

“They talk like that, but there is no law to chase us from here. As long as the Vietnamese Embassy is here-that’s important,” Vo Van Lung said.

That’s a thin hope to pin a life upon, activists say. The embassy can help with administration and quiet advocacy, but if things deteriorate-as they have done before-the Vietnamese government is all but impotent, activists say. A good example is the plight of Phnom Penh’s river people in 1999, whose banishment went ahead over rare public protests from Vietnam.

But the best example, one veteran human rights activist said, is the violence of the 1998 elections, which saw Vietnamese targeted for violence-and not just in the Khmer Rouge-haunted countryside.

“Five years after Untac, Vietnamese were being killed randomly on the streets of Phnom Penh,” the activist said. “So there’s no reason to believe the attitudes have improved and we’re looking at a new era of peace and love.”

The legacy of hatred and violence today poisons real grievances, like recent complaints of Vietnamese government land-grabbing in Svay Rieng province, observers say.

“I feel as a Cambodian citizen it is a legitimate issue to raise. What I have no taste for is the way the issue has been linked to the racial issue,” democracy advocate Lao Mong Hay said.

In the case of the threatened evictions in Kompong Chhnang, at least, race-baiting also undermines decentralization and development.

Chhnok Tru commune Chief Chhan Hoeun has heard “rumors” of the proposed evictions, but hopes they are not true. Tired of subsistence life on the lake, he wants the commune’s people-all of them-moved onto dry land, where they can own their own property for the first time. Displacing the Vietnamese would disrupt the community and his plans for it, Chhan Hoeun said.

“I want everybody on the land-regardless of nationality,” he said.

Cambodia has come a long way in its treatment of the Vietnamese, Lao Mong Hay argues. The violence has abated and the recent National Assembly debates over Vietnamese encroachments have stayed on point without breaking down into demagoguery, Lao Mong Hay said.

“I think it has improved in the sense that there have not been physical attacks. And I think there’s less sort of racial animosity. There’s less racial connotation. That’s an improvement,” he said.

An improvement, perhaps-but not enough of one, some counter.

“It’s always there, under the surface,” the human rights activist said.

It’s not far below the surface for Lay Sitha, 28, a Phnom Penh hair stylist. Her father is a Khmer from Kompong Cham province and her mother is a Vietnamese from Lao Cai province, north of Hanoi. Sometimes, she feels caught between several cultures-she married an ethnic Cham police officer who died several years ago-but she tries merely to get along with everyone.

“I have Vietnamese friends and Khmer friends,” but they rarely mix, Lay Sitha said.
No matter where she goes, though, in Cambodia or Vietnam, she is never quite home, Lay Sitha said.

“Sometimes, the Khmer people, they say I’m yuon-I’m Vietnamese-and the Vietnamese say I’m Khmer. They say, ‘Oh, you’re so black,'” she said.

There are worse days, like the one in mid-June when hundreds of protesters marched on the capital to get the attention of Cambodia’s foreign donors. While outwardly civil, Lay Sitha said, anti-government protests set her on edge.

“Like today, Sam Rainsy had a protest and I got scared. I’m very afraid. Sometimes, I want to move to Vietnam,” she said, staring at the floor, rubbing her legs. Then she shrugged. “But I can stay.” (Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)

cap Sitha wm: Lay Sitha, 28, a hair stylist of mixed Vietnamese and Khmer parentage, helps a coworker perform a manicure. “Sometimes, the Khmer people, they say I’m yuon-I’m Vietnamese-and the Vietnamese say I’m Khmer,” she says.

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