Legitimate Issues, Irrational Hatred Fodder for Opposition Opportunists
They are crude, insulting and often juvenile, but the handmade posters that keep popping up at opposition demonstrations are telling about the unprecedented anti-government protests and the mood behind them.
Many of the cardboard signs depict Second Prime Minister Hun Sen wearing a conical Vietnamese-style hat. Some show him as a puppet, with deceased Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh pulling his strings. At least one shows Hun Sen’s head on a dog’s body with a speech bubble saying “I am a yuon.”
If the signs hint at underlying sentiment, Sunday’s defacing of the Vietnam-Cambodia Liberation Monument was a shout. A crowd numbering in the hundreds cheered as students who were part of an opposition-led march climbed up on the stone soldiers, took a sledgehammer to both, poured paint and gasoline on the Vietnamese soldier and lit it afire.
Opposition leaders quickly distanced themselves from the attack. But in their speeches the next few days, rally leaders continued to call for an end to the “yuon puppet” regime.
Despite appeals from diplomats and human rights workers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy have failed to distance themselves from the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, analysts say, for a simple reason:
Anti-Vietnamese language finds a more-than-willing audience in many Cambodians who still see the CPP as an extension of the Vietnamese occupation regime of the 1980s and who believe illegal Vietnamese immigrants have designs on Khmer land.
“It’s deeply entrenched and widespread….It can turn fierce if it is whipped up by the political elite.,” says Kate Frieson, a Canadian academic who has extensively studied Cambodian nationalism.
The major opposition parties, which grew out of the anti-Vietnamese armed resistance movement of the 1980s, know this and have for years used resentment against the Vietnamese occupation as a rallying cry, Frieson said.
“This is the issue that gets the masses on their side,” she said of the opposition. “So they have a political reason not to cool it on this issue, not to let it go.”
Plus, opposition leaders and many Khmers argue that the resentment is justified. When asked about racist rhetoric, Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh retort that they are merely addressing legitimate concerns of fishing rights, illegal immigration and land encroachment.
Ask any Khmer and more than likely you will get the same kind of argument, with varying levels of bitterness.
“The government lets the Vietnamese enter Cambodia freely,” said Ted Vorn, a moto-taxi driver from the border province of Svay Rieng, “You know our history. The Vietnamese have brought their people to Cambodia and this is their tactic. Step by step, they will have enough of their people here to claim our land.”
Of the attack on the monument, he said, “This is just to show our anger to the government. It is not to focus only on the racial hatred.”
Cyclo driver Norn, 45, also defends the incident.
“I think that it is bad to destroy public property, but destroying a Vietnamese communist statue is quite different,” Norn said. “I really hate the Vietnamese here because they are destroying the fishing grounds and they invaded Cambodia….It’s not very good to have hatred for our neighbors. But if our neighbors want to be our masters and occupy our houses, do we still have to be friends with them?”
Analysts say the deep-rooted distrust of the Vietnamese stems from a mixture of legitimate gripes and decades of ultranationalist propaganda. And it is tied up in Cambodians’ convoluted relationship with Vietnam as both savior from the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and oppressor during the subsequent occupation years.
“It’s a very complex subject,” admits Frieson, a research associate at the University of Victoria’s Southeast Asia program.
Chea Vannath, president of the Phnom Penh-based Center for Social Development, says that there are indeed legitimate issues of illegal immigration that the present government and its predecessors have failed to deal with.
“We have lacked legislation to deal with the [immigration] issue since 1970,” Chea Vannath said. At present, she said, Cambodia lacks a nationality law and corrupt officials allow almost unchecked immigration, causing resentment from people who fear displacement. “Since people do not have a way to deal with it legally, they just take the issue and solve it with their own hands. That means not just socially, but politically, with incitement.”
Frieson also agrees there are serious issues not being addressed, especially in an agrarian-based culture whose people depend on land for livlihood. But she said the fierce sentiment against Vietnam goes far beyond the rational.
“The perception is real that the Vietnamese are encroaching and there is some evidence for this,” she said. “But the explanation for it is often that the Vietnamese are inherently evil and that is why they do it. That’s the disturbing thing.”
“They seem to think…Vietnam exists only to antagonize and encroach on Cambodia’s borders.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Although the Khmer and Vietnamese people are historic rivals, most experts say it was not until the 1970s that ethnic hatred became so entrenched thanks to the manipulations of politicians.