Race to the bottom

In the beginning was the word, torn from the throat of a man who would soon see a minor traffic accident descend into murder: yuon. In February 2014, ten men beat the life from a Cambodian man of Vietnamese descent as he came to the aid of his younger brother…

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October 21, 2016
Race to the bottom
People power: Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and vice-president Kem Sokha address supporters at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Photo: Nick Axelrod/Getty Images/AFP

In the beginning was the word, torn from the throat of a man who would soon see a minor traffic accident descend into murder: yuon. In February 2014, ten men beat the life from a Cambodian man of Vietnamese descent as he came to the aid of his younger brother involved in a fender-bender on the streets of Phnom Penh. Widely believed to have derogatory connotations, the word yuon, which refers to ethnic Vietnamese, had been in the mouths of furious politicians for months after the hard-fought 2013 national election. That day, it was lying in the street like a dead man.

The politics of fear

In the next three months, with more than nine million Cambodians expected to register to vote in the upcoming commune and national elections, the decision by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to mobilise a force of some 2,000 observers to screen the process for suspected foreigners – even those possessing valid Cambodian identity cards – has reignited accusations that the opposition is hoping to rise to power on a wave of racial hatred and mistrust.    

Cambodian Buddhist monks burn Vietnamese flags near the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh
Hot topic: Cambodian Buddhist monks burn Vietnamese flags near the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh

The CNRP has long been tarred with allegations that its leadership has tried to shore up its support among Khmer voters by launching racially charged polemics against ethnic Vietnamese immigrants and pledging to drive Vietnamese immigrants from Cambodian soil.

Perhaps nowhere was the divide between ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and CNRP policy clearer than in the government’s announcement in August that it would be offering a path to legal residency, and possibly citizenship, for the majority of the 160,000 immigrants – mainly Vietnamese – living in Cambodia without proper documentation. The CNRP response was blunt. “If they do not have the proper documents, it means they are living here illegally,” a CNRP spokesperson told the Cambodia Daily. “They should go back to their country.”

Cambodia-based human rights consultant Billy Tai told Southeast Asia Globe that the CNRP’s use of racially charged rhetoric was emblematic of the opposition’s inability to articulate clear policies to justify their campaign against the ruling CPP.

“I think this is a massive problem in the current political discourse in Cambodia,” he said. “They’re not developing proper policies to contest the elections; they are exploiting the entrenched anti-Vietnamese sentiment that’s been embedded within the Khmer psyche for generations, and it’s working – the very unfortunate thing is that it’s working.”

The threat of invasion

The CNRP, whose reformist agenda and firm stance on human rights propelled it to a strong showing in the fiercely contested 2013 national elections, has found its policy platform cut out from under it by an increasingly defensive CPP. By adopting opposition policies such as wage rises for civil servants and judicial reform, the government has put pressure on its rival to distinguish itself from the regime in other ways.

Cham Bunthet, a politics lecturer at Cambodia’s Paññasastra University and a Grassroots Democracy Party official, described the CNRP’s use of racially charged rhetoric as “immature and dangerous”.

“It’s easy politics,” he said. “They don’t need the headache of developing more constructive policies and advocating them. It’s hard and costly. Second, the CNRP would gain lots of financial supports from Cambodians overseas by using anti-Vietnamese sentiment. I have met some Cambodians in some EU countries when I studied there telling me that if the CNRP could not win, Vietnam would take over Cambodia.”

Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe, opposition spokesperson and president of the CNRP executive committee Yim Sovann maintained that his party did not discriminate based on race, stating that the opposition had legitimate concerns about Vietnamese encroachment and illegal immigration.

“We just want to talk about the reality,” he said. “We love our country. We love our land. We want to live peacefully. We are not invading any country – and we don’t want any country to invade Cambodia.”

It is a spectre with deep roots in Cambodian culture. In the twilight days of the Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Indochina from 802CE to the fall of Angkor in the 1400s, Vietnamese settlers began to stray further and further into the fertile lands of the Khmer-controlled Mekong Delta, finally annexing the territory in the last days of the 17th century. The indigenous people who remained on the lands by the Mekong’s mouth, the Khmer Krom, have accused successive Vietnamese regimes of trying to eradicate their culture, language and heritage. It is this fear, that the growing ethnic Vietnamese population of Cambodia is little more than the vanguard of a centuries-long cultural crusade, that lies at the heart of much of the conflict between the two nations.

While he castigated the use of racist rhetoric, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Los Angeles’ Occidental College Sophal Ear said the opposition was raising issues that urgently needed to be addressed.

“It riles up people’s passions about the alien other, but is there an illegal immigration problem in Cambodia? Of course there is,” he said. “Is there an encroachment problem? Absolutely. The question is how to deal with this in productive ways.”

A history of violence

The longstanding enmity between the neighbouring countries exploded into a bloody war during and after the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Incensed by repeated Khmer Rouge incursions into their territory, in 1979 Vietnamese forces swept across the border and drove the regime into retreat. Led by Khmer Rouge defectors including now-Prime Minister Hun Sen, Vietnam’s decade-long occupation of Cambodia ushered in the government that still rules to this day.

Quite apart from its appeal to Khmer nativist sentiments, the CNRP’s ongoing anti-Vietnamese rhetoric also serves to remind voters that the CPP’s initial rise to power came not by the ballot box but the bayonet. Hun Sen’s subsequent attempts to legitimise his premiership have been dogged by an opposition that accuses him of dancing on Vietnamese strings.

Cambodian police watch as Vietnamese people wave their national flags across the Cambodia-Vietnam border
The other side: Cambodian police watch as Vietnamese people wave their national flags across the Cambodia-Vietnam border

By painting Hun Sen as a puppet dictator installed by the Hanoi regime, the CNRP attacks the very foundation of the prime minister’s appeal as the man responsible for driving the Khmer Rouge from power, according to Tai.

“They’ve been able to exploit this baggage that the CPP has been carrying for a very long time,” he said. “As we move further and further away from the Khmer Rouge regime ending in 1979, the discourse… has become less of Vietnam as liberator but more and more Vietnam the occupier, and obviously the CPP came in on the back of that – Hun Sen specifically.”

Cambodian Centre for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap suggested that the CPP has responded to the CNRP’s targeting of ethnic Vietnamese by stressing its own independence from the Vietnamese government.

“In the past, the CNRP has been the primary guilty party, but lately we have seen the CPP attempt to distance itself from its historic ally Vietnam by also inflaming anti-Vietnamese nationalist sentiment,” she said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a letter last year lambasting the Vietnamese government, following reports of five irrigation ponds dug by Vietnamese authorities in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province. The move was widely seen as an attempt by the government to tap into the populism of the opposition’s outspoken criticism of Vietnamese encroachment.

Bunthet, however, said that the CNRP’s attacks on Cambodia’s sizeable ethnic Vietnamese population played right into the ruling party’s hands – even suggesting that the CPP was deliberately undermining immigration reform to goad the opposition into abandoning the moral authority they have cultivated.

“I believe the CPP gains benefits from the CNRP’s anti-Vietnamese sentiment,” he said. “The CPP uses [it] to make the CNRP look unfit to rule the country. At the same time, the CPP easily wins the legal Vietnamese voters.”

A call to arms

Although anti-Vietnamese sentiment can be found across all sections of Khmer society, it is in rural Cambodia, the heart of the CPP’s support base, that poor education and entrenched poverty have created ripe conditions for bigotry. By allowing the blame for inequality to fall on Vietnamese immigrants, the CNRP can make inroads into a demographic that has traditionally voted for the ruling party.

“I think partly the CNRP is trying to use this to gain a foothold into the rural votes… There were reports about the CNRP wanting their supporters to go back to their home communes to vote, so obviously they realise they’ve got the urban centres locked up, but they need to compete quite aggressively in rural Cambodia for those rural seats,” said Tai.

Sopheap warned that the CNRP’s tactics could drag Cambodia back into the racially motivated violence that erupted during and after the 2013 election. Whipped into a nationalistic frenzy, groups of ethnic Khmer voters blocked ethnic Vietnamese from entering voting booths and, in the months after the election was called in favour of the CPP, a number of people suspected of being Vietnamese were set upon by mobs and beaten to death.    

“The threat of violence against ethnic Vietnamese is very real in the run up to the elections,” Sopheap said. “The use of racial profiling is a particular concern, and one can easily predict how these plans could escalate into violence.”

Spreading division is a strategy that has a long history in Cambodian culture, but the opposition could be in danger of betraying the principles that had first driven them into the harsh world of Cambodian politics, according to Bunthet.

“For almost a thousand years… Khmer have painted each other as Vietnamese puppets or Thai puppets, and we killed each other because of our suspicion we have had of one another,” he said. “This is our political norm – to paint and destroy each other.”

“The CNRP is fighting with two enemies at the same time,” he added. “This is not good for the CNRP, and it is very dangerous for Cambodia… You cannot end the oppression by becoming the oppressors.” 

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