A minor traffic accident and an ensuing argument turned into a mob killing in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Saturday night after someone shouted the racially charged word “yuon.”
It is the word that nobody who witnessed Nguyen Yaing Ngoc’s death wanted to say Monday, but it is a slur that his wife, Men Sinath, will never forget.
“I didn’t believe that my husband would be killed over this word,” said the eight-months pregnant woman, 26, from beneath a row of stilted timber and iron shacks on the edge of the Tonle Bassac river in Chak Angre Loeu commune.
“He was born in Cambodia. He lived all his life in Cambodia. He has a Cambodian wife and soon a Cambodian baby, but he was killed for being Vietnamese?”
Nguyen Yaing Ngoc, 28, was at his home in Tuol Rokar village, a predominantly Vietnamese community nestled between the river and Chak Angre Loeu pagoda, on Saturday night when he got a phone call from his neighbor, who said he had been sideswiped by a car while riding his motorbike along National Road 2.
When Nguyen Yaing Ngoc and a group of about eight friends arrived at the scene of the crash in Chak Angre Krom commune, the car was gone and the neighbor had been whisked to hospital, but his motorbike was left blocking an alleyway.
“[Nguyen Yaing Ngoc] got into an argument with a father and son because they couldn’t move past the moto,” said Kong Samnang, who operates a one-room karaoke bar in the alleyway and witnessed Saturday night’s mob killing unfold.
“Then he hit the father and the son and then a big group gathered around,” Mr. Samnang said, adding that he did not hear anyone use the word “yuon,” a word for the Vietnamese that can be derogatory in some contexts.
However, commune deputy police chief Huot Vanna said Von Chanvutha, a 50-year-old onlooker, had incited the mob murder by calling out “yuon,” and had been arrested accordingly.
“When one man said ‘Yuon fights Khmer,’ all the people started to yell, “Yuon fights Khmer,’ and more of the people got angry,” Mr. Vanna said. “This is the problem.”
“We are investigating further, and Mr. Chanvutha will face the law.”
Witnesses say that the first blow landed was a punch to the head of Nguyen Yaing Ngoc. Nguyen Yaing Ngoc attempted to flee but was knocked to the ground as he made his escape.
“They beat him for 10 minutes, maybe 15,” said Leang Hy, 30, who sells drinks and fruit out of a small stall in the alleyway where Nguyen Yaing Ngoc eventually died.
“They beat him so hard, with their fists and feet to his face and his head,” she said.
Somehow, Nguyen Yaing Ngoc managed to get to his feet, witnesses said, and ran further down the alleyway before collapsing in front of Ms. Hy’s stall.
“He couldn’t scream or run anymore and he just fell to the ground and he was dead,” Ms. Hy said. “They didn’t hit him anymore.”
Like most people in the alleyway where Nguyen Yaing Ngoc was killed, Ms. Hy would not entertain suggestions of a racially charged murder.
“They didn’t kill him because he was Vietnamese,” she said. “There were so many people chasing him and beating him, they couldn’t know if he was Khmer or Vietnamese.”
The opposition CNRP put the word “yuon” in the spotlight in the run-up to last year’s election, with party president Sam Rainsy making promises to “get rid of the yuon” in Cambodia a key part of his platform. Mr. Rainsy has said that the CPP government is overly beholden to the Vietnamese government and turns a blind eye to illegal immigration of Vietnamese into Cambodia.
Last night, the CNRP released a statement denouncing the “cruel murder in the street” of Nguyen Yaing Ngoc, but Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who has publicly lambasted Mr. Rainsy for his use of the word “yuon,” said this case should not be linked to politics.
“The opposition has played the yuon card quite often, but the negative feeling that some Cambodians have toward Vietnamese is widespread and general. It should not be linked to any political party,” Mr. Virak said.
“But this case shows that using the word can be very dangerous.”
At Nguyen Yaing Ngoc’s home in Tuol Rokar village Monday, his brother-in-law, Thay Hoyin, who was playing cards and drinking beer following the funeral, gave away nothing when asked about the use of “yuon.”
“We are just simple workers, working to eat. We do not understand the government and the politics about this word. We don’t care,” he said.
“But of course, this is scary.”