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.