Sam Rainsy’s recent long-winded editorial in the Phnom Penh Post lamenting the negative connotations affixed to the word “yuon,” the Khmer word used to describe Vietnam or Vietnamese, underscores the central problem of Cambodia’s hapless political parties. In his
diatribe against critics—mainly Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Western media—who accuse him of race bating to drum up support for his opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Rainsy goes into the etymology of “yuon,” which the Post had previously described as a racial epithet, and the history of Vietnamese colonization of its neighbor to the west. He glosses over the recent wave of attacks against Vietnamese people and businesses in Cambodia, inferring such social violence is typical in a country governed poorly and featuring a litany of socioeconomic problems.
It is beside the point whether the xenonym “yuon” is perceived as having racist undertones or if it is simply an objective description of a people. Mr. Rainsy makes claims of moral relativism, arguing that the sort of animus directed against Vietnamese in Cambodia is commensurate with the treatment of Khmers living in Vietnam (Kampuchea Krom people) who face divaricating levels of discrimination as well. In Cambodia, however, the race card has been played by the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) who have both latched onto the deep, cultural emotions of their respective supporters to perpetuate this division.
During this past summer’s National Assembly elections, which were rife with irregularities, the racial demagoguery coming from Rainsy was matched by Hun Sen’s proclivity to remind Cambodians that it was he who stabilized the country following the madness of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The long-serving Prime Minister dropped several subtle hints along the campaign trail, warning peasants in the Cambodian hinterland of the “instability of war” which might return should his party be defeated. His speeches, a few of which I witnessed first-hand, might have reminded one of something Goethe observed, that ”the romance of politics is best used to numb and to quell the fears of the uninformed.”
Control of Cambodia’s historical narrative is something which Hun Sen has had very little problem in maintaining over the years. But with last year’s reemergence of Rainsy and the CNRP as a serious threat to the CPP’s longstanding monopoly over the country’s political power, that discourse began to change. Public consciousness of the ruling party’s myriad faults—widespread corruption, land grabbing, and violent crackdowns on dissent–became palpable, especially among the country’s youth—suddenly increased. There was a brief moment where Cambodia seemed poised for an organic “people power” revolution, similar to what the Arab Spring was at its beginning. However, that initial movement was soon trumped by seemingly impervious racial resentments that have come to define contemporary Cambodian politics and society.
Such sentiments can be traced back decades. After securing independence from France in 1954, Cambodia’s monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, approved several acts of legislation which significantly curtailed the rights of Vietnamese migrants. The Khmer distrusted even the most benign shopkeepers, an antipathy rooted from an imperialist history which dates to the early 19th century. Sihanouk once said: “No Vietnamese will sleep peacefully until he has succeeded in pushing Cambodia towards annihilation.”
To that end, Sihanouk favored a policy of “Khmerization” of smaller ethnic groups, but not the Vietnamese whom were considered a different race. The Khmer language does indeed differentiate between race and ethnicity. However, these social problems paled in comparison to the ones wrought by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, who seized power in 1975 and promptly banned all minority groups, as well as organized religion, money, and family units. They also killed between one and twomillion people, according to historical estimates.
Hun Sen himself was originally a Khmer Rouge military officer who had been seriously wounded fighting against the forces of the US-backed President Lon Nol in April 1975; a bullet piercing his forehead cost him his left eye. Although originally signing up to fight with the revolutionaries after witnessing the continued US bombardment of his hometown of Memot, he became fearful once Khmer Rouge cadres accused his father of being a Royalist supporter and then tortured him. He fled the country soon after, choosing to defect to Vietnam.
In the years following their invasion of the country in 1978, the Vietnamese assumed responsibility for Cambodia’s affairs during its subsequent occupation. Their task was a daunting one. After several poor rice harvests caused by absurd Khmer Rouge dictates, the country was starving and there were few if any qualified doctors. Many Cambodians who had any sort of educational training had been killed by the Khmer Rouge who considered schools bourgeois. In addition, any infrastructure the country had had was left in a state of disrepair. Needing someone to administer the recovery, the Vietnamese turned to Hun Sen who was young, articulate, charismatic and, most importantly, could be trusted by Hanoi. He was an obvious choice to lead the newly named People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia since 1985, and how he obtained that position is important in understanding the xenophobic platform of Mr. Rainsy and the CNRP today. Droves of young Cambodians on motorbike brigades sped up and down Phnom Penh’s main boulevards during this past summer’s electoral season armed with CNRP flags and shouting “doh,” the Khmer word for change. However, it was the disturbing excursus of virulently anti-Vietnamese rhetoric which grabbed headlines. Rainsy’s fiery rhetoric has not ebbed since the summer, and it has fueled continued protests staged by a combination of actors including CNRP supporters, still livid over the flawed election, and poorly paid garment workers who are demanding a better monthly salary. Against this backdrop, Vietnamese businesses have been torched, and the usage of the word ”yuon” is now being debated.
Mr. Rainsy and the CNRP claim they are merely concerned with illegal immigration. They erect the false dichotomy that the more Vietnamese who migrate to Cambodia, the larger the threat to the Khmer culture. This message of a zero-sum game, constantly inundating a people who have endured so much tragedy in recent history, can easily become the norm. As social scientists Heinz Kleger and Stefan Ehrentraut concluded in their 2004 study on multiculturalism in Cambodia, “The essence of being Khmer for many Khmer is defined in their direct opposition to Vietnamese identity."
The CPP have used the Vietnamese demographic, which stands at approximately 5 percent of the population, to reinforce its primacy in the country’s outlying provinces. There were reports in the run-up to last year's election that some Vietnamese who did not possess citizenship were given the requisite identification documents needed to cast a vote by party staffers. There were subsequent indications that legal Cambodian citizens of Vietnamese background were denied their vote in CNRP strongholds.
Nationalist movements incorporate the importance of racial and ethnic identity to varying degrees. It has become the issue in Cambodia where there is also a deficit in leadership from both mainstream parties which, far from attempting to mollify tension, do their utmost to exacerbate them. It would be correct to point out that widespread poverty is in part fueling tempers, in addition to a corrupt bureaucracy and the authoritarian tendencies emanating from Phnom Penh. Having argumentative debates about whether a word is or is not inflammatory is like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm. It skirts around the very serious issue which underpins modern race relations in the country—acute distrust, often leading to demonstrations of violence. Both Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy might be best served by channeling their energy into promoting a more conciliatory dialogue. That would include a political risk, however, that neither is likely to be willing to take.
Image via Radio Free Asia
Tim LaRocco teaches political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Cambodia-based freelance journalist and English teacher.