sa’ang district, Kandal province – With the race card playing prominently in the Sunday general elections, groups of wary Vietnamese are packing up and leaving Cambodia ahead of Sunday’s vote.
But 20-year-old Long Chandee, one of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese minority, said she has heard the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric before and, though it’s worrying, she’s staying put.
Vietnamese people who come to Cambodia solely for business or those who are rich and still have family in Vietnam will leave until a new government is sworn in and the xenophobic sentiments stirred up by the politicians are quelled, Long Chandee said.
But a significant minority of ethnic Vietnamese who were born and raised in Cambodia, and who consider it their home, will not run away, she added.
Threats to throw the Vietnamese out of Cambodia and to set up a ministry to deal with the Vietnamese issue were also used by parties competing in the 1993 and 1998 elections, she said.
Anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is now a familiar election ploy, one that many ethnic Vietnamese have grown used to, she added.
“When I listened to the party broadcasts on the radio I was afraid. But this is normal,” Long Chandee said as she served strong coffee at a small cafe in Svay Rolum commune.
“The political parties just say that. But after the election nothing will happen. Their rally is just like that,” she said.
Some Vietnamese have started to return home, but if Long Chandee were forced to return to her birthplace, it would mean a trip to Battambang province.
Despite an upbeat feeling that the anti-Vietnamese talk will soon fade, Long Chandee and other ethnic Vietnamese in this village of some 300 families have placed watchmen on guard at night, and strangers are not allowed to enter after 10 pm.
“We never have any problem. But protection is better than a cure,” she said.
Rakishly skinny, with cardboard straight hair and a toothy smile, Chea Kim Long, 54, may have the classic looks of many Vietnamese, but he was born in Cambodia and considers this country his home.
“If Cambodians force us back to Vietnam, the Vietnamese will not accept us because we are not Vietnamese,” Chea Kim Long said.
Treasuring the official papers that prove his legal right to live in Cambodia, Chea Kim Long fully intends to fulfill his right as a citizen of Cambodia and cast his vote on Sunday.
Promises by the Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party to send the Vietnamese back to Vietnam have not endeared either party to the country’s ethnic Vietnamese population, but the CPP appeared more moderate, Chea Kim Long said.
“In 1993 a lot of new parties talked the same way, and we were scared. But nothing happened. Even if they say it, they will do nothing to the Vietnamese. They just say that for their political interest,” Chea Kim Long said.
“The CPP in their rally appear to give us more protection,” he added.
Sanctuary has been needed in elections past.
During the 1998 post-election protests in Phnom Penh, four ethnic Vietnamese were beaten to death amid wild rumors that the Vietnamese were responsible for the deaths of dozens of Cambodians who had died from drinking tainted rice wine.
Amnesty International called on opposition party politicians to cease using the inflammatory anti-Vietnamese language that many believe had fueled ethnic fear and loathing during the 1998 election.
Appearance alone was enough to have Sam Rainsy Party activists lodge complaints with election officials when ethnic Vietnamese So Sokha, 34, showed his election card during last year’s commune elections.
“I demanded I was Cambodian. I had all the documents to show them…. I never think I am Vietnamese. But I speak Vietnamese so they think I am Vietnamese,” So Sokha said.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1970, So Sokha said most Vietnamese care more about making a living than politics, but he would be voting again on Sunday.
“My hair is curly like my father and he was Khmer,” said ethnic Vietnamese Sok Nieng, 59, running wrinkled fingers through her graying, close-cropped hair near her home in Prek Pra commune in Meanchey district.
“The families who have money will go back to Vietnam. They just came to Cambodia to make business. But for me I have to stay here. I can’t go anywhere,” Sok Nieng said.
Born in Battambang but raised in Phnom Penh, Sok Nieng remembers the attacks in the early 1970s on ethnic Vietnamese communities and the internment camps set up by General Lon Nol’s republican troops.
Some 800 Vietnamese laborers were taken by troops in April 1970 from a settlement in Chroy Changva commune. Their arms bound, they were pushed onto waiting boats, taken out onto the Bassac River and executed, historians claim.
Earning a living was now more important than Cambodian politics, said Sok Nieng, adding that she has been apolitical for years because no party of any persuasion has ever made her life easier.
“It doesn’t matter to me who becomes Mr Big…. I always pray that whichever Mr Big wants the big position, they get it. I just don’t want the war like in 1975,” she said.
Previously voting in 1993 and 1998, Sok Nieng said she didn’t bother to register this year because her husband died two years ago and she wouldn’t have anyone to go to the polling station with.
Chantha Pov, 23, was more rattled by the anti-Vietnamese statements than others in her ethnic Vietnamese family. But any plans to cleanse Cambodia of the Vietnamese could run into problems from the country’s male population.
“What will happen to the Khmer men who have Vietnamese wives? If they force their wives back many Khmer husbands will have to go and live in Vietnam,” Chantha Pov said.
“Many Vietnamese women have married Khmer men. They like Vietnamese girls a lot,” Chantha Pov said.
Feeling half Cambodian and half Vietnamese, Chantha Pov said she was unlikely to ever reconcile her identity with others.
“I feel half and half,” she said. “But when I tell people I am Cambodian, [Khmers] don’t believe me.”