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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Inter-racial love survives through years of hatred

Inter-racial love survives through years of hatred

PRODUCT OF LOVE...

10-year-old Bak Tit, whose father is a former Vietnamese soldier, sits next to his Khmer mother, Chhib Saroeun, at their home in Arey Khsat commune of Kandal.

AREY KHSAT, Kandal - Chhib Saroeun met the love of her life more than a decade ago

as the Khmer Rouge fought advancing Vietnamese forces in Battambang province.

The tide of the battle turned near Saroeun's village in Thmar Koul district as the

Vietnamese troops took heavy losses. Saroeun saw many wounded and dead soldiers being

carried away in hammocks while others panicked under the Khmer Rouge counter-attack.

A young Vietnamese soldier named Bak ran to her home and begged for help. Overcome

with pity on the soldier whose army had just ousted the architects of the killing

fields, Saroeun hid the man under her house.

"I was so frightened that night because the Khmer Rouge attacking the village

were watching the Vietnamese soldiers and wanted to kill them," Saroeun, now

55 years old, remembered at this small village on the banks of the Mekong River.

"If the Khmer Rouge had caught [Bak] he would have been killed. But he was not."

The incident sparked first hatred, and later romance.

After hearing of his wife's deed, Saroeun's husband flew into a rage and kicked her

out of the house, claiming that she was in love with the invading Vietnamese army.

Bak heard of Saroeun's plight and sought her out. After finding her, he pledged to

take care of the her for the rest of his life. They are now married and have a child.

It is a love story that may appear surprising in the wake of the racist violence

against Vietnamese that has marred opposition demonstrations over the last fortnight.

First the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument was defaced Aug 30 by demonstrators

from nearby 'Democracy Square'. Then a poisoning scare touched off by a tainted batch

of locally made rice wine was pinned on ethnic Vietnamese by opposition newspapers

on Sept 3. Angry mobs beat and killed at least four Vietnamese over the next few

days.

The brutal killings were quickly condemned by the Cambodian government and foreign

embassies, with the Vietnamese Embassy releasing a stinging statement against the

opposition.

"A number of extremists in Cambodia once again committed barbarous crimes against

the Vietnamese residents in Cambodia...," the embassy stated. "Vietnam

vehemently condemns the above-said barbarous and racial discriminated [sic] acts.

Such acts have harmed the traditional friendship between the people of Vietnam and

Cambodia."

Saroeun was cautious when asked for her reaction to the recent violence against Vietnamese.

"There are many kinds of yuon [Vietnamese]. They should not have broken the

rock [of the statue] because the rock doesn't know anything," she said, using

a Khmer word for the Vietnamese that is sometimes criticized as a racist term.

"If it is true that yuon have poisoned Khmer people, they must have been the

bad yuon," she said, adding that she is still thankful for the Vietnamese invasion

in December 1978. "They helped us from the sadness [of the Khmer Rouge rule]."

Bak, 45, definitely falls into Saroeun's category of good Vietnamese. After quitting

the army, he stayed with Saroeun in Cambodia after the Vietnamese withdrew. Proud

parents of a 10-year-old boy, Bak Tit, they became officially married during a 1997

trip to Bak's home village near Hanoi.

"I didn't think that I could be his wife because I was old and he was so young,"

Saroeun said. "But he said that I rescued him from certain death and that he

was satisfied to pay back the good deed."

She praised Bak's family, saying they were very friendly, unlike what Khmers usually

think of the Vietnamese. She described her difficulty communicating with her in-laws,

but her husband kindly translated whenever her new family and their neighbors came

to meet her.

"I told him and his family that I just saved him from being killed only, and

I asked his parants to have Bak back so he can marry to another [Vietnamese] girl

because I am so old."

But Bak's parents organized a small party in the village one night and held a traditional

Vietnamese wedding ceremony for Saroeun and Bak. Bak's father declared during the

ceremony that now his son, who after having lived in Cambodia for a long time, had

come back with a Cambodian wife.

There are several inter-racial marriages in the villages of Arey Khsat commune, the

home of a large Vietnamese army base during the occupation.

Noch Chantha, 39, married a handsome Vietnamese soldier named Em in 1987, a few days

before his unit was recalled to Vietnam. The two fell in love while Chantha was a

roadside vendor in Arey Khsat. They now have three children.

Em and Chantha have had a stormy relationship that has seen them separate a number

of times over the last ten years. Currently living with her mother, Chantha criticized

Em for drinking too much and not being able to save money, accusations that Em did

not deny.

"Yes, I had lost her money," Em said as he fixed a fishing net in the predominantly

Vietnamese village in Arey Khsat. "I am trying to earn money to pay her back

and I will ask my wife to be with me again. If she does not agree I will not marry

with any other girl because I am afraid a second wife would mistreat my children."

...PRODUCT OF HATRED

Two ethnic Vietnamese lay dead outside Funcinpec headquarters after being attacked by a Khmer mob.

Although the relationship has had its problems, Chantha also still has strong feelings

for her husband. "Sometimes I force myself to leave my mother and go to live

in yuon village with my husband because I love him," she explained.

Chantha was saddened by the recent events in the capital and worried about the futures

of her three Viet-Khmer children.

"I feel sorry for my children because in this society people hate yuon and the

father of my children is yuon," she said. "I did not expect that this kind

of discrimination would happen in Cambodia now."

But the Khmer hatred for Vietnamese has been simmering since the 19th century, according

to academics.

French occupation of the region saw Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos combined under a unified

Indochinese government. After the three countries gained their independence in the

1950s, border disputes fueled existing racism.

Chhang Song, Minister of Information during the US-backed Lon Nol regime, argued

that politicians are more to blame than history because many Cambodian leaders encouraged

Khmers to hate their larger neighbor.

Chheng Song noted with irony that several past governments courted Vietnamese support

and then turned backs to Vietnam when the help was no longer needed.

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