How Anti-Vietnamese Racism is Fueling Politics in Cambodia

The elderly Vietnamese woman resided in a tiny room off an alley in Phnom Penh, using boxes of the soda pop she sold for a living as furniture. And she was worried. It was the summer of 2013, and controversy was raging over the Cambodian elections, which long-time prime minister Hun Sen claimed to have won, and which the opposing Cambodian National Rescue party claimed had been stolen from them. Her concerns were more simple: if the opposition party prevailed, would she find herself persecuted?

“For the time being, I feel Cambodian people hate Vietnamese people,” she said, in a quiet voice. “Vietnamese people just come to Cambodia to look for jobs. They don’t hate anyone.”

Controversy has been brewing in Phnom Penh ever since July, when the Cambodian People’s Party, led by long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen, claims to have won the national election. The newly formed Cambodian National Rescue party, led by recently-returned from exile politician Sam Rainsy and Human Rights Party founder Kem Sokha, claims that election irregularities were rampant, and has been leading mass protests ever since, calling for change to a more democratic system — away from the unabashed corruption, vote-snatching, and rampant land-grabbing that has marred Hun Sen’s so-called democracy.

But there’s a less lofty side of the CNRP (as the name of the opposing party is often abbreviated) rhetoric: they’re vocally anti-Vietnamese, especially when it comes to Vietnamese who live and work in Cambodia.

Vietnam and Cambodia have always had a decidedly contentious relationship. Although Vietnam may have defeated the Khmer Rouge when it entered Cambodia in 1979, many Khmer (the name for Cambodia’s dominant ethnic group) still view the Vietnamese march on Phnom Penh as an invasion, not a liberation. Many Khmer still consider the fertile Vietnamese delta to be part of their heartland: the Vietnamese took over the area in the 1600s and a Khmer minority — often ill-treated themselves — still resides there.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has a long history of personal animosity towards the Vietnamese. He has spent most of his political career in exile, the latest such expulsion taking place after he publicly moved boundary markers between Vietnam and Cambodia in 2009, claiming that the markers were evidence of Vietnamese encroachment upon Cambodian territory.

Alongside political partner Kem Sokha, Rainsy has been willing to cite the “Youn” (a term for their nationality that many Vietnamese consider to be pejorative) as the source of many of the nation’s ills. A number of CNRP supporters believe Hun Sen is a Vietnamese puppet, that Vietnamese are flooding the border to take their jobs, and even that bused-in Vietnamese illegally voted in the July elections.

Sowing this division, it must be admitted, is a smart strategy for an opposition seeking to discredit Hun Sen by any means necessary. The Prime Minister spent time in Vietnam after he defected from the Khmer Rouge and to the North Vietnamese during the war years, and he continues to enjoy close business ties with the neighboring country — these allegations hit him where it hurts.

Strategically, if cynically, clever as the gambit may be, average Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia are likely to suffer most for it. After the protest killings last week, at least one Vietnamese coffee shop was sacked and burned, and online invective against “Youn” on social media become more potent than ever. Prominent human rights activist Ou Virak has been hit with death threats and slander after he implored the CNRP to stop its invective against the Vietnamese.

Average Vietnamese on the street have taken note of the uptick in rhetoric against them, and they’re worried. Already, some of their number have left or are planning to leave the country, recalling the 1970s pogroms against the Vietnamese that saw many of their number murdered. Meanwhile, young Cambodians on college campuses told me over the summer that they saw tough US policy towards illegal aliens as a role model for what their own government should do toward Vietnamese migrants.