I am appalled to see how hard a bias or a false notion, created by some fancy Western
journalists, can be put to rest. Mr Michael Coren, on page 6 of your well-esteemed
bimonthly Phnom Penh Post (June 20-July 3, 2003) raised again the question of the
meaning of the word Yuon.
During UNTAC time, myself and another French scholar had already put straight the
record on this issue, by explaining extensively the origin of this word "yuon",
which had no derogative meaning whatsoever. The effective Vietnamese occupation from
1979 to 1991 has imposed the word Vietnam, which is substantive not adjective to
anything related to the Vietnamese, formerly called Annamese or Dai-Viet.
It is now a political issue, because the Vietnamese had imposed this word during
their colonial time; why should we comply like during the Pol Pot time to use the
words they have decreed for us to use instead of the old ones, they deem feudal or
bourgeois? I refuse to do so, to oppose the diktat either by the Khmer Rouge or by
the Vietnamese colonialists who succeeded them.
It is not a human rights issue. It should be in the other sense, when you behave
like slaves by accepting dictators' diktats. This is the same parallel that you can
draw from the Vietnamese diktat and interpretation for political reason, which became
an issue between the Vietnamese collaborators and the resistance movements.
During the Pol Pot time, the word family was restricted to husband and wife, while
in the old time it is an extended family, and the word to eat which is hierarchical,
according to age, position and social status was reduced to "Hop", when
in the former times we have many words for that from the derogatory ones to the very
polite ones. By the way, why the Thai would not feel anymore insulted by our calling
them Siem, as they used to before, because of their wrong interpretation of the inscription
on the Angkor Wat bas-relief and their scholarly understanding of it after?
Now, to come back to the origin of the word "yuon" itself. Mr Michael Coren,
although he rightly traced it back to the Sanskrit word, made a wrong interpretation
of the word, by lending a meaning according to the Chinese view of anything external
to them as barbarians.
Yavana in Sanskrit, which became yuon in Khmer, because of the way we write the Sanskrit
word, simply means "foreigner". This word itself was used by the Indians
to name the Ionians who formed the core of Alexander the Great's Army fighting on
the Indus River. The Khmer, like the Thai and the Lao used this word, without any
sense of derogation.
When we want to insult the Vietnamese, we have other words than this one, as the
Vietnamese have words to insult us, or as the Thai. So we should learn our cultural
background carefully, and not get deviated by circumstances or by the superior persuasion
of our Western journalists, who are not always scholars.
It is a pity that Tong Vey got trapped in the political controversy of this word.
For my part, I refuse to change the meaning of a word, because of the accident of
history, I never use the word "hop" but "ñam" or "pi-sa"
or "totuol tean" to mean "to eat". Sorry for the false revolutionaries,
who are impoverishing the Khmer language.
This is not only the exercise of my freedom of belief and speech, but also our right
to defend the historical core of the Khmer language, that no one can lightly change
- Son Soubert - Member - Constitutional Council