With the election approaching, many of the ethnic Vietnamese in Phnom Penh are expressing increasing fear – fear of racial/ethnic violence directed against them by the opposition party and/or opposition party supporters.
I first started hearing concerns over this election from the Vietnamese a couple of months ago, just small talk in the cafes. They were saying that they felt this election had more potential for anti-Vietnamese problems than any election since 1998, but the reasoning seemed non-specific at the time. In an effort to get a better handle on these fears, over the last couple of weeks since the beginning of the campaign I’ve made it a point to have my afternoon coffee at cafes in the Phsar Kandal area of Phnom Penh, (where there is a large ethnic Vietnamese population,) hoping to overhear some scuttlebutt, perhaps talk to some local Vietnamese about their fears. I got a bit of both.
It has been said that the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia support the CPP (the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Cambodian Peoples Party) because the CPP will not deport the illegal Vietnamese immigrants from the country. But to listen to the Vietnamese talk about it, while this is certainly an element, perhaps a stronger element from their point of view is that the opposition parties have always represented potential discrimination and even ethnic violence against them.
In my couple of weeks listening to the Vietnamese talk about the election, rumors have swirled and grown and are getting thicker. Though not verified, there is tell of groups of intimidating young men stopping Vietnamese appearing people in the evenings, demanding to know “what number” (which party) they support. “Number 7” is said to be the safest answer. They tell of racial epithets yelled by passing CNRP supporters, of Vietnamese caught alone after dark receiving a beat down, of women soup and egg sellers having their wares overturned and smashed by groups of young men. In light of these rumors the Vietnamese offer safety and security advice to each other: Vietnamese should not go out after dark, be careful not to get caught alone even during the day, don’t challenge them, just say “7” and keep your head down. They are also making contingency plans of where to go should widespread violence erupt, exchanging phone numbers, determining whose house is most secure, where they should gather, how they can get there, etc.
None of this should come as a surprise to Cambodia watchers. This sort of anti-Vietnamese intimidation and violence is far from unprecedented. The Vietnamese are the Khmer’s ethnic Other, the first minority group onto which blame falls during times of political and social tension.
The relationship between Vietnam and Cambodia is complicated, and traditional ethnic antagonism is deeply intertwined with historical and political animosities which are not completely unjustified, but when things turn bad in Cambodia, it is often if not always the poor, powerless ethic Vietnamese that take the violent brunt of it. They were massacred in a nationalist fury under Lon Nol in the early 70s, and again by the Khmer Rouge, not only in the late 70s when the KR were in power, but through the 80s and right up into the mid 1990s. Racially provocative rhetoric has been part-and-parcel of every Cambodian election since 1993, with the Royalist and the Sam Rainsy party leading the way in this regard. In the pre-election period of 1998, ethnic Vietnamese were assaulted and murdered in the provinces. During the post-election opposition protests of 1998, when the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric became particularly heated, there was significant anti-Vietnamese violence in Phnom Penh, including the murders of a couple of Vietnamese women, innocent street sellers, by an angry mob right in front of the French Embassy.
The Royalists (FUNCINPEC), and now the opposition party, (formerly the Sam Rainsy Party [SRP,] now the Cambodian National Rescue Party [CNRP]), have always played to the anti-Vietnamese sentiments in their election rhetoric, employing a convoluted mix of anti-government (the current government is seen to be aligned with Vietnam,) anti-immigration, nationalistic, historical and racial rhetoric. In this election (2013) the opposition has altered the rhetoric slightly, reframing much of it in terms of land issues and jobs in a seeming attempt to make it more palatable to the western press, but the underlying racial appeal remains the same, just in slightly new garb. (And, unbelievably, the international press and English press in Cambodia was apparently fooled, or perhaps indifferent, even sometimes playing into it in their reporting.)
Now, with the election nigh, even those new clothes are beginning to fall away. There are increasing reports of anti-Vietnamese sentiments being yelled from opposition party parades. And the reports are coming not just from Vietnamese but Cambodian and western observers. At Sam Rainsy’s return to the country on July 19, I heard several anti-Vietnamese chants (though interestingly it went unreported in the local English language press.) And apparently Sam Rainsy, as he stumps through the country in this final week of the campaign, has ratcheted up the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, helping to fuel some of his supporters’ anti-Vietnamese resolve.
Many ethnic Vietnamese in Phnom Penh are scared, and justifiably so – of the increasing anti-Vietnamese fervor of this last week, and even more of what may follow the election.
Cambodia Daily: 'In CNRP Campaign, a Subtler approach to 'Vietnamese Issue'
Cambodia Daily: 'CPP the Clear Choice for Ethnic Vietnamese Voters'