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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Activist’s Facebook firestorm

Human rights activist Ou Virak talks to the media outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last year.
Human rights activist Ou Virak talks to the media outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last year. Vireak Mai

Activist’s Facebook firestorm

A vicious backlash on social media has seen angry messages escalate to death threats against human rights activist Ou Virak in reaction to his call for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to stop inciting discrimination against the Vietnamese.

Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, has been attacked on his Facebook page in comments ranging from disappointment to outright vulgar abuse.

He has also received hate mail, including one email that states “I really want to kill you so bad, ar Yuon , Ou Virak go back your country, yuon.”

Yuon is a Khmer word for Vietnamese that some argue is derogatory, a view strongly denounced by those attacking Virak, who has repeatedly implored Rainsy to stop using it.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Virak clarified that whether or not the term was pejorative was not the point, it was that Rainsy singled out the Vietnamese in speeches, inciting discrimination against them.

Yesterday, Virak said the virulent reaction against him reaffirmed his concerns about using anti-Vietnamese sentiment as a campaign platform in the first place.

“In some ways, the reason I have said what I have said is because I believed all along that all of this rhetoric will lead to hatred, and most of the comments I see on Facebook sadly show what I have seen all along.”

Virak added he was more disappointed in the Cambodia National Rescue Party leadership than those making the comments, for stoking such “dangerous” sentiments and dividing the country by employing race politics. He called on them to condemn racism.

A CNRP statement released in August did just that and affirmed the party’s commitment to international human rights standards on immigration issues. But Rainsy, who could not be reached yesterday, has continued to employ anti-Vietnamese rhetoric in speeches.

In condemning the opposition leader’s rhetoric towards Vietnamese, Virak has been something of a lone voice in Cambodia’s NGO community.

“[That is] because many of the NGO people are working in the NGOs because they want to fight the Hun Sen regime. I want to fight repression, and I think a lot people are confused between fighting repression and just fighting the CPP,” he said yesterday.

Pung Chhiv Kek, president of local rights group Licadho, said yesterday: “I don’t like to comment on the campaign against or for Mr Ou Virak. I’m not at all interested in this campaign against or for,” and declined to comment further on the issue.

Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said leaders worldwide worry about illegal migration, while stressing not all Vietnamese in Cambodia were illegal immigrants. But he said criticism of politicians should be constructive.

“I worry that if we damage one political leader, it could damage their reputation. Now it is a sensitive moment, we have to be careful, we have to be careful so we don’t lose face for one side.”

Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Rupert Abbott, said Virak was merely doing his job and it was important human rights defenders be able to criticise politicians.

“We condemn the threats, and we would hope that others would do the same. We think it would send a powerful message if the government and the opposition spoke out about this in terms of the role human rights defenders play in Cambodia,” he said.

CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua did condemn the threats, but stressed the party was not responsible for the actions of such individuals, which may require the intervention of authorities.



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vantheman's picture

Excuse me Mr Ou! Fighting CPP is absolutely our priority. CPP is main culprit of oppression, human rights violation, corruption just to name a few. Getting rid of them is the window to a genuine democracy.Not quite sure if Mr Ou himself has any empathy towards intention of this demonstration. I hope he hasn't sold his conscience to the CPP like others did.

jim2014's picture

Mr. Ouu, are you ignorant!, all Khmer use the word Yuon long time ago to designate vietnamienne people ... know you want them to change for viet!

ppao952's picture

Who is this guy. I never heard of him till now. What does he say he want to fight repression? He should join force w/ the majority to fight repression. He knows who the actual represser is. If he is Cambodian, he'd know that the word "youn" is not derogatory and it's been used for centuries till some idiot decide to populate the term out of meaning.'s picture

Virak is right this time. The continuation of inciting discrimination against Vietnamese leaves slim chances of winning this battle.

Potim Yun's picture

I have no interest with Mr. Ou, CNRP, or CPP or Vietnam. I just would like to share my though on the word "Yuon". By reading history, this word "Yuon" is real Khmer word which is simply referred to the current "Vietnamese" in English or “Vietnamien” in French word before the word "Vietnam" was created in 1940s. In the pass, the use of "Vietnam" was revived in modern times by nationalists including Phan Boi Chau, whose book Việt Nam vong quốc sử (History of the Loss of Vietnam) was published in 1906. By the early 1940s, the use of "Việt Nam" was widespread. It appeared in the name of Ho Chi Minh's Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (Vietminh), founded 1941, and was even used by the governor of French Indochina in 1942. The name "Vietnam" has been official since 1945. It was adopted in June by Bảo Đại's imperial government in Huế, and in September by Ho's rival communist government in Hanoi (from Wikipedia).Generally, in Cambodian history, Cambodian called the people of Vietnam as “Annam” or “Yuon”. The word “Yuon” was widely used in Cambodian society before the word “Vietnam” was created. Example, “Samlor Machou Yuon: special soup”, “Srok Yuon: Vietnam”, “Cheyden Yuon: Vietnam border”, etc. This word “Yuon” was also used in Poet written by the Father of Khmer Poetry “Krom Ngoy” (1865-1936). It is just a translation of the word “Vietnamese” into Cambodia as “Yuon”, Chinese called in Khmer as “Chen”, Thai is called “Siem”, Burmese is called “Phumea”, Singaporean is called “Soenghaborey”, Japanese is called “Chorpon”, Frenchman is called “Barang”. Before Khmer Rouge, everyone use word "Yuon" including our Father King, and no one said that this word is insulting word or downgraded "Vietnamese".Why Cambodian called Vietnamese as “Yuon”? It seems that Cambodian called Vietnam as "Yuon" from the Chinese word "Yuè", "Yuht", "pinyin". As in Cambodia, Chinese pronunciation is not clear, so Cambodian called it as "Yuon".Why does this word “Yuon” become racism? Maybe this word was strongly used and emphasized by Khmer Rouge. After North Vietnam took over South Vietnam in 1975, and after Cambodian was controlled by Vietnam from 1979 to 1989, Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia imposed Cambodian to called them as “Vietnam” not “Yuon”.This is quite similar with Burma. After Burmese government was controlled by soldiers, the army Burmese government adopted a new word for Burma, called “Myanmar”. However, this new terms could not impose American or people who speak English to call them as “Burmese”.In sum, the word “Yuon” is just a normal Cambodian word which is referred to “Vietnamese” in English or “Vietnamien” in French. It is similar that Cambodian called Chinese as “Chen”, Thai as “Siem”, Japanese as “Chorpon”, Frenchman as “Barang”, etc…

besdongkk's picture

Sorry but the word Youn is from Yunnan, Chinese name of vietnam. We call it like Yun, not mean anything, just the name for viet ethnic.i SUPPORT new party, who always fight for anti-corruption, national border, culture, democracy. For sure, only CNRP can help Cambodia better, dont let our Cambodia be destroyed by those fat CPP.

luonthai's picture

Cmom Khmer people look between the line, they are trying to turn your attention away from what really going on. Khmer smuh nunk Khmer.

metrey's picture

This word is the same way that people call us "Khmer", how do we feel when they call us like that? It's fine for us even some countries consider this word as we are: Khmer rough or "Khmer" in other context.So we can't ignore the truth of the nation.Or we should wondering why Mr. Virak is considering as it's a bad word or it's already coming from his heart? Sorry, it's not about politic from my point of view in my comment but the word!