Opposition taps anti-Vietnamese sentiment
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PHNOM PENH — It was late evening around the Boeung Trabek area of Cambodia’s capital, and the Vietnamese-run cafés and carpentry shops on these dimly lit sidestreets were locking up for the night.
One restaurant owner, who would not give his name, told The Edge Review that “politics is messy for us in this country,” explaining his reluctance to discuss in more detail the anti-Vietnamese speeches given by opposition leader Sam Rainsy since his return to Cambodia on July 19.
Another shop-owner, speaking Khmer but with what a translator described as a Vietnamese accent, said she is a Cambodian from Kampong Cham, about a three-hour drive from Phnom Penh. She said that she neither comes from Vietnam nor has any Vietnamese ancestry – her apparent reluctance to divulge her background perhaps another signal of the fears held by Vietnamese migrants and Cambodians of Vietnamese descent in Cambodia’s fractious post-election period.
Both the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) have claimed victory in the election, which has been tainted by widespread allegations of cheating – including the omission of over one million of the 9.6 million voters from the official voting lists, flaws that the opposition says should be investigated.
On the hustings before the vote, Rainsy repeatedly used the term “yuon,” derogatory Khmer slang used to describe Vietnamese, and said, if elected, he would reclaim areas such as Koh Trol (Phú Quốc in Vietnam).
Rainsy’s CNRP claims such areas are Cambodian lands lost to Vietnam in centuries gone by, when Vietnamese and Khmer kingdoms saw boundaries move back and forth across what is now southeast Cambodia and southern Vietnam – with the area around Ho Chi Minh City at one time a Khmer-run area, for example.
“We will usher in a new era in Cambodian history to write a new page on the protection of its territorial integrity,” he said in Svay Rieng, a border province, the week before the vote.
“Many Yuons have come. They move their border posts close into our territory,” he continued.
Rainsy’s own exile was due in part to his past actions at the frontier, where he pulled up border markings and was later charged in 2010 with inciting racism. When he returned to Phnom Penh on July 19 after a royal pardon, supporters chanted anti-Vietnamese slogans, such as “Vietnamese out,” while election day saw a riot in Stung Meacnhey in Phnom Penh – the one violent incident in what was otherwise a peaceful election – partly caused it seems by claims that a Vietnamese had voted in the district.
Hostility toward Vietnamese, in short, remains a potent force in Cambodian politics. The Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes in Cambodia both carried out grisly massacres of Vietnamese in a country where the cry “kap yuon” (or “chop the Vietnamese”) still resonates. Perceptions, meanwhile, that Hun Sen and the CPP owe their power to Hanoi’s benefaction, going back to the 1979 Vietnamese invasion that toppled the murderous Khmer Rouge, still hold.
Asked by The Edge Review about the opposition’s anti-Vietnamese campaigning, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that “we don’t promote discrimination,” and added that his party wants effective implementation of the country’s immigration laws.
“A lot of Vietnamese come to our country illegally and that is a major problem,” he said.
To what extent the opposition owes its unprecendented electoral gains to playing on anti-Vietnamese sentiments is hard to tease out, however, and some say its role is being overplayed. Vannarith Chheang, Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told The Edge Review that “the majority of the voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the government, especially the local authority over corruption and injustice. Anti-Vietnam is just a minor issue.”
The CNRP was, however, tapping into a vein of anti-Vietnamese sentiment that runs through the electorate – making for an easy tactical conflation of anger at CPP corruption with hostility toward Vietnamese.
Rin Ran, a 32-year-old monk who at the close of polling last Sunday was lingering at the gates of the Chaktokmuk school polling center in Phnom Penh, said that he voted for the opposition.
In between berating police inside the polling station for not permitting him to re-enter the station to observe the vote counting, he said that “My brother and sister in Svay Rieng said that many Vietnamese were voting there and that Khmer could not vote.”Show