Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Vietnamese flee Cambodia's racist jibes


Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese are scurrying back to their native land or bunkering down, fearing that a campaign of racial slurs in the lead-up to this Sunday's elections could turn violent.

Throughout the campaign the royalist FUNCINPEC party and to a lesser extent the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) have played on the historical racial hatred of their neighbors.

Consistent references to yuon -- a derogatory term for Vietnamese -- along with promises to set up a migration ministry to monitor the Vietnamese and home-spun superstition have sent a powerful message the government has described as "a shame."

The distrust of all things Vietnamese dates back centuries to claims the southern area of Vietnam belonged to a greater kingdom of Cambodia subsequently lost through land grabs and borders drafted by French colonialists.

In Cambodia, Vietnamese are present in all strata of society, from those living in atrocious slums to senior members of the business community and the government.

A 50-year-old Vietnamese woman said her compatriots had recently taken note of shooting stars in the night sky and interpreted them as portents for war.

"I also live in fear. When I heard Ranariddh targeting yuon during his election campaigning, I decided to stay home," she said, referring to FUNCINPEC chief Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Ranariddh dealt the race card on the June 26 campaign kick-off, announcing that his ministry would tackle the yuon.

One political analyst said FUNCINPEC needed to differentiate itself from the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is favored to easily win the upcoming polls.

FUNCINPEC is a junior coalition partner to the CPP in the government and its failure to distance itself during last year's local elections was widely blamed for its poor showing at those polls.

Hun Sen, who has had solid links with Hanoi since being installed as a senior minister by Vietnam after it invaded Cambodia in 1979 and ousted the dreaded Khmer Rouge, rarely criticizes his former paymaster.

Renowned Khmer scholar Michael Vickery recently compared the use of the word yuon -- which means barbarian -- with "nigger."

It is a "derogatory designation and those politicians and intellectuals who insist on using it must be denounced as pandering to, even encouraging, ethnic prejudice, hatred and violence," he wrote in the Phnom Penh Post.

The government estimates at least 100,000 Vietnamese live in Cambodia but does not divulge how many of them are illegal, nor how many are now fleeing.

But one long-time observer as well as a diplomat have both estimated around 2,000 have headed for the safety of their homeland, while hundreds more in Vietnam are likely to have cancelled trips to Cambodia.

Violent outbreaks left two Vietnamese dead just after the 1998 elections, while government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told reporters "a lot" were killed before the 1993 poll, but no exact figures were recorded.

"It is a shame for the whole of Cambodia that these leaders have no programs for the development of the country, but only play on extreme issues like racism," he said.

None of the Vietnamese who spoke to reporters wanted to release their names, insisting on a low profile until after the elections. The Vietnamese Association of Cambodia declined to comment.

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