Researchers Attempt to Ease Racial Tensions

When a Vietnamese man was killed by a mob in Phnom Penh following a traffic accident earlier this year, it highlighted growing tensions between ethnic Khmer and Vietnamese populations.

The victim—who was in fact born in Cambodia, had lived his whole life in the country and was married to a Cambodian woman —was set upon after someone shouted that he was a “yuon,” an often derogatory word meaning Vietnamese.

The racially charged murder laid bare the extent of the embitterment some Cambodians feel towards Vietnam because of a long and at times hostile history between the two nations, which critics say the opposition CNRP has helped fuel by consistently using anti-Vietnamese rhetoric in its public campaigns and demonstrations.

Now, a group of researchers have begun studying Vietnamese populations in Cambodia in the hope that revealing more about the lives of the country’s largest ethnic minority could help to ease tensions.

The pilot study gathered oral accounts from 32 Vietnamese people living in floating villages on the Tonle Sap.

Ly Rattanak, a project officer at the NGO Kdei Karuna, who on Friday evening presented the conclusions at the Center for Khmer Studies, said most of the interviewees had a strong connection to what they saw as their homeland.

“Mostly they came in the late 19th century and they settled and they have been living in the Tonle Sap area,” he said. “Many of them can speak Khmer very well because when they were in their childhood they played with Cambodian children.”

Mr. Rattanak said that very little research had previously been done on the Vietnamese populations and a better understanding of how the communities emerged and evolved could generate a more nuanced understanding of their diversity.

“This study is a first step to collect their stories with the aim to raise awareness in Cambodian society on the fact that ‘The Vietnamese’ are not a homogeneous or monolithic group,” he said via email.

Kristina Chhim, a researcher who specializes in Cambodian modern history and oversaw the project, said she hoped the work would help spark discussion among Cambodians.

“My most important thing was I wanted to support and help the Khmer people to get involved in this issue, to look a bit more at Vietnamese living in this country,” she said, adding that the group hopes to conduct a series of related studies in the years to come.

Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who has been highly critical of the CNRP’s racist rhetoric, said anything that advanced dialogue about the ethnic Vietnamese population was positive.

“I don’t think it will change a lot of minds—there are a lot of ultra-nationalists at play—but it’s a good start,” he said.

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