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
The brutal killings were quickly condemned by the Cambodian government and foreign
embassies, with the Vietnamese Embassy releasing a stinging statement against the
"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
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
"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
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.