Because of general ignorance and political manipulation – especially by foreigners, with the foreign “experts” on Cambodia being the worst offenders – the term yuon has become so controversial that the Khmers and the Khmer language have become the victims. The term has been criticised by foreign experts as “contemptible”, “derogatory” and as having a “savage connotation”.
In his letter to the editor of the Washington Times (September 13, 2002) David Roberts defamatorily called the opposition leader, Mr Sam Rainsy, a racist for using the term yuon when referring to Vietnamese. Roberts was harshly critical of Mr Rainsy and wrote: “Mr Rainsy is not a democrat. He is a disappointed authoritarian in the Cambodian tradition. He refers to his Vietnamese neighbors as ‘yuon,’ meaning savage”.
Yasushi Akashi, the head of UNTAC, was hypnotised by the foreign “experts” on Cambodia to the degree of, reportedly, speechlessness, when a Khmer journalist used yuon to refer to Vietnamese when asking him questions. Akashi’s foreign advisers even discussed criminalising the use of the term.
Samdech Hun Sen’s letter to US senators John McCain and John Kerry of October 3, 1998, capitalised on the senators’ ignorance of the term yuon in Hun Sen’s campaign against Mr Rainsy. Hun Sen stated, “Mr Sam Rainsy referred to me as a yuon puppet. In case Your Excellencies are not familiar with the term yuon, yuon is highly derogative and racist term used to denigrate those of Vietnamese ancestry”. Hun Sen is known for his ties to the Vietnamese. What Sam Rainsy said was nothing new. Hun Sen chose to attack his use of the term yuon rather than answer the charge that he was too close to the Vietnamese.
The term began to be politicised in the late 1970s, especially during the Khmer Rouge-Vietnam war. In an attempt to demonise the KR, the Vietnamese propagandists propagated that yuon is a pejorative term for the Vietnamese (see Hanoi’s propaganda against KR: Kampuchea Dossier (KD), April 1978, Pt I, p 35).
Robert’s definition of yuon as “savages” appears to have been drawn from the KR’s definition of the term found in the KR Black Papers (1978, p 9). The definition is incorrect and baseless, and was included by the KR and the Vietnamese for the purpose of their respective propaganda.
Let me set the record straight. The term is neither new nor contemptible or derogatory. In fact, the Khmers have been using the term for more than a thousand years, and it has become a piece of Khmer tradition and language. As far as the surviving recorded evidence shows, the word yuon appears in Khmer inscriptions dating back to the reign of King Suryavarman I (1002-1050), an immediate predecessor to the Angkor Wat temple builder Suryavarman II (see Inscription K105 or Coedes, Inscriptions du Cambodge, K Hall, Maritime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia (1985) etc). Yuon was used in the context of trade and commerce to refer to the Vietnamese people and in no way was a term of contempt.
As a matter of fact, yuon was well-known and used by early European travellers and officials; for instance, by the British linguist Lieut-Col James Low, by a famous French naturalist Henri Mouhot, by Thai King Mongkut (1851-68) in his official correspondence, etc. Yuon was still in use by some French writers after the independence of Indochina states; for instance, by a French Sergeant Resen Riesen. In Khmer writings, the term yuon was not used as a racist slur nor to indicate contempt, but to refer to what since WWII have been known as Vietnamese people. None of the Khmer language dictionaries define yuon as “savage” or indicate that it is a pejorative term. Yuon has been used in old and new Khmer poetry and songs for hundreds of years compared with the term “Vietnamese”, which has been used for about 50 years.
It is true that most Vietnamese do not know the term yuon and only the Khmer colloquially use it to refer to them, but this surprises no Khmer because equally most of the Vietnamese do not know that almost the whole of south Vietnam (from Don Nai to Hatien provinces) rightly belong(ed) to Cambodia, and the Vietnamese ancestors (and themselves) have colonised that part of Khmer lands for the last three centuries. Yuon had been used long before the beginning of this brutal Vietnamese colonisation started in the late 15th century.
Some “experts” have argued that if the Vietnamese are offended with the use of term, the Khmer should follow their wish. Political “correctness”, or forced accommodation rather, is not new to the Khmer. Back in the 19th century, the Khmer were forced to learn and speak Vietnamese rather than the Khmer language, and to behave and to dress the way the Vietnamese did under the policy of Vietnamisation by Emperor Minh Mang or his dynasty. When the Khmer resisted, they were punished and, in some cases, executed. The resistance has continued.
Believe me, Khmers know which words in their own language are “bad” or pejorative, and we do not need foreigners to teach us or show us the way.
Send letters to: [email protected] or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.