Mey Neth walked slowly as she followed a monk through a ramshackle village on the banks of the Tonle Bassac yesterday, eyes downcast, draped in a white sheet and holding a portrait of her dead husband, Tran Van Chien.
The 30-year-old Vietnamese-Cambodian was beaten to death by a mob in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Saturday evening, after a confrontation erupted between a group of ethnic Vietnamese and bystanders at the scene of a traffic accident.
Nguyen Dong, 22, who had been drinking with Van Chien’s younger brother, crashed his motorbike into the back of a car on National Road 2 in Chak Angre Leu commune, said Ke Yat, a 72-year-old street vendor who observed the incident unfold.
“When [his] friends and family arrived, they all seemed very angry already … and then later, I saw them fighting [with the Khmers], but I don’t know who started it first. But the fighting escalated when a few guys started shouting that ‘yuon were fighting Khmer’,” Yat said, using a term for Vietnamese considered derogatory by many.
“Then people came from all directions and started chasing them, and I heard that a Vietnamese was killed.”
Men Heng Tith, Meanchey district deputy police chief, said that more than 10 people were seen attacking the victim, but only one could be arrested.
Huoth Vanna, the commune deputy police chief, said the dispute erupted when Van Chienh’s parked motorbike was deemed to be blocking traffic.
“Fighting broke out and he tried to escape from the scene and was chased … to a [side] street about 150 metres from the accident scene and was badly beaten in the face.”
Neth, who is an ethnic Khmer and heavily pregnant with the couple’s first baby, was yesterday mourning Van Chien’s loss to a violent and increasingly public manifestation of the long-held animosity towards Vietnam that runs deep through Cambodian society.
“Even though he is [ethnically] Vietnamese, he only has one life as a human. Just like Cambodians.… But unlike a human, he [was killed] like an animal,” she said of her husband, who was born in Cambodia and spoke fluent Khmer, like his mother and father.
In response to the incident, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has drawn criticism from numerous quarters for its repeated use of inflammatory rhetoric in regard to Vietnam, released a statement yesterday denouncing the violence in general terms.
“The CNRP would like to appeal to all people to put an end to all forms of violent culture [in society] and [practise] culture that respects human rights, love, tolerance of one another and respects the lives and dignity of all people regardless of religion or race, [or if] they are Khmers or foreigners,” it reads.
But government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said the incident could be considered a “result” of anti-Vietnamese political rhetoric from the CNRP.
“[UN human rights envoy] Surya Subedi said that he was very alarmed about the [CNRP’s] rhetoric and racism against the Vietnamese and [now] this has happened,” Siphan said.
Issues of uncontrolled immigration, land grabbing and political influence from Vietnam have long been a mainstay of opposition rhetoric, but Dr Eng Kok Thay, head of research at genocide research organisation Documentation Centre of Cambodia, yesterday drew a direct link between such rhetoric and the killing.
“Clearly, it is a wake-up call for everybody in Cambodia, and especially the members of the opposition.… This is the first time in several years [this has happened] and … clearly, if you look at the news, [when] the opposition brought it up as part of their campaign, it started to boil again, and now you see this killing.
“[Sam Rainsy] does not understand very well that talking hatred and [negative] sentiments between different races could lead to … killings.”
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann yesterday firmly rejected allegations that his party held any responsibility for the mob killing.
“Our rivals try to manipulate what we really say. I am also one of the top leaders of the CNRP, and you can see my language since a long time ago and also other top CNRP leaders, we understand clearly the principles of human rights,” he said.