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Ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia and whose families have lived in the Kingdom for generations talk about discrimination and identity at their market stalls in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district last week.
Ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia and whose families have lived in the Kingdom for generations talk about discrimination and identity at their market stalls in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district last week. Pha Lina

Outcasts in their own country

Srey Neak*, a 26-year-old nurse, has never had any trouble voting before.

But this election, the pale-skinned Phnom Penh resident was turned away from a polling station by opposition supporters determined to keep out “the Vietnamese”.

“She’s also yuon! Kick her out!” is what the young woman, an ethnic Khmer too scared to give her name to the Post, says she heard.

“They said I’m yuon just because my skin is light. If that’s true, all pale Cambodians will not dare to go and vote next election for fear they will be kicked out.”

Like a number of Cambodians, Srey Neak had lost her identification documents before the election and procured a temporary identification allowing her to vote.

When she turned up at her local station in Kbal Koh commune, however, election officials questioned her documents and her right to vote.

In an adjacent room, a mob of opposition supporters were noisily ejecting two allegedly illegal Vietnamese voters, and the crowd quickly turned on Srey Neak too, leading her to experience first-hand what she believes are the consequences of a manufactured ethnic schism that amounted to little more than widespread racial discrimination on polling day.

“I don’t support [illegal] Vietnamese to vote, but if a Vietnamese has lived here for 30 years and has the right documents, they are [Cambodian].... If you live in the USA or other foreign countries and you take on the nationality, you can vote.”

Whatever their ethnic roots, Srey Neak’s family have been registered residents of Kbal Koh commune for the past 14 years and have the paperwork to prove it.

Hurriedly leaving the polling station with her mother in fear that morning, Srey Neak was invited back to vote later in the day when the mob had left, but was unable to return due to work commitments.

Sok Na, 23, was one of the young CNRP activists blocking voters at Srey Neak’s polling station, but said he never saw her and only sought to stop voters he knew were “Vietnamese” because they were not fluent in Khmer and looked different.

“I followed him [a Vietnamese man] until he left, but then a commune clerk came to me and captured my face, together with the other people who banned the Vietnamese from voting, with his camera,” he said. “We think only Khmer people, it doesn’t matter which political view they have, but they are the ones who decide about our Cambodia’s future, not the Vietnamese.”

Campaign rhetoric
Early in the election campaign, senior Cambodia National Rescue Party figures pledged that it would focus on concrete policies this election, rather than anti-Vietnamese rhetoric.

“That is not the position of the party, you see.... Some individuals in the leadership of the party have spoken about their feelings, but we believe our policy is the main thing we have to apply, not what individuals at times have spoke emotionally [about],” CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay told the Post months before the election.

But when leader Sam Rainsy stole the political limelight just weeks before the election by making an unexpected return from self-imposed exile, he was swift to resuscitate a tried and true xenophobic vote-winner.

In speeches liberally peppered with “yuon”, the term oft-times viewed as derogatory to describe Vietnamese living in Cambodia, Rainsy promised to deport illegal Vietnamese. (The issue does not feature on the CNRP’s seven-point policy platform.)

For Rainsy, harnessing deep-seated historical Cambodian animosity toward the Vietnamese has been a favoured campaign tactic since the very first democratic election in Cambodia in 1993, when he was elected as a candidate for Funcinpec.

In the lead-up to that vote, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia under Yasushi Akashi pulled one of his television broadcasts in which Rainsy dropped the word “yuon”.

“Maybe yuon is slightly pejorative,” Rainsy conceded at the time in an interview with the Post. “But it’s a habit, and I am not here to educate the people.”

In the tense post-election period this time around, the opposition has claimed the government allowed thousands of illegal Vietnamese to cast votes, with rumours describing truckloads of “yuon” being ferried between provinces and across the border a staple of online and coffee shop hearsay.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann was ambiguous as to whether the opposition had a direct policy to encourage citizens to stop “illegal” voters casting ballots.

“You can see that some are illegal. So, yes, if they are illegal, they cannot go to vote. I do not know who are legal and illegal. Most of the people know more clearly than me,” he said. “It’s the right of the people.”

CNRP supporters block ethnic Vietnamese voters from a polling station on election day in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district last month.
CNRP supporters block ethnic Vietnamese voters from a polling station on election day in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district last month. SO VISAL

Born and raised
Although the issue of illegal immigration is a major sticking point for many and regarded as a genuine political issue, Vietnamese-Cambodians who have lived in the Kingdom for generations are largely painted with the same broad ethnic brush that disenfranchised Srey Neak on polling day.

In Meanchey district’s Niroth commune, locals spoke of their struggles to be accepted in the only country they have ever known as home.

Standing under the tin roof of a ramshackle market where a dozen or so sellers ply their wares to the sound of Vietnamese soap operas, 37-year-old Sok You explained that like most here, he was born in Cambodia but forced back to Vietnam in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power.

Returning in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded, You (formerly Nguyen) was lucky enough to pick up a Cambodian identification card in the 1990s, allowing him to vote in every election since 1998.

He said he recently moved away from the bustling Vietnamese coffeeshop-lined streets near Chbal Ampov market to this quiet riverside area, known colloquially by Khmers as “Yuon Village”, to escape recurrent fires lit by what many believe are arsonists.

“I don’t agree at all with the feelings of those who say there are lots of illegal immigrant Vietnamese voters.... All of those [Vietnamese-Cambodians] who vote have been here for a long time. We are Khmer,” he said.

Gesturing at his son who was dozing on a blue hammock tied up in the narrow market pathway, You explained that he made his boy, 14, attend Khmer public school so he can better assimilate.

“I don’t want him to speak Vietnamese. He speaks a bit with me, but I don’t want him to have a Vietnamese accent when he speaks Khmer, because when he is older, I want him to be able to have a Khmer ID card.”

Although he is illiterate in Khmer, You has the power to legally vote and says he simply looks for the CPP logo on the ballot form.

In the stall next door, Chan Dara, 54, matter-of-factly stated that she can’t vote, despite her family having lived in the Kingdom for generations.

Like many, her family either lost their official papers and birth certificates during times of political upheaval or never had them in the first place.

Stateless ‘immigrants’
According to A Boat Without Anchors, a report prepared for the Jesuit Refugee Service looking at the legal status of ethnic Vietnamese, many in the minority group could be considered stateless, as they struggle to be recognised under either Cambodian or Vietnamese nationality laws.

The fact that no less than three different Cambodian nationality laws under different regimes apply to Vietnamese-Cambodians and their descendants makes their claims for citizenship a legal minefield, the report contends.

Factoring in that laws governing retroactive application for birth certificates and other documents necessary to obtain citizenship stipulate “Khmer citizenship” as a pre-condition to applying, these third-generation residents face serious hurdles to being recognised in the country where they were born and raised.

“The reality in Cambodia is that ‘the Vietnamese’ are never comprised of one single group of Vietnamese, but comprise multifaceted and diverse sub-groups of individuals,” said Lyma Nguyen, an international civil party co-lawyer at the Khmer Rouge tribunal and co-author of the report.

Vietnamese have long been targeted in Cambodian history, particularly under the Lon Nol regime, and then under the Khmer Rouge, when those who weren’t forcibly deported were killed simply because of their ethnicity.

An ethnic Vietnamese girl walks through a market in Phnom Penh.
An ethnic Vietnamese girl walks through a market in Phnom Penh.

Nguyen, who argues that the Khmer Rouge killings of ethnic Vietnamese constituted genocide, says that long-term Vietnamese-Cambodians are the most vulnerable when the issue becomes politicised.
“For those survivors of these atrocities who have grown up in Cambodia, and resided in Cambodia for generations, their survival was due to their deportation to Vietnam in 1975.

“Upon their return to Cambodia, rather than being given recognition as long-term residents of Cambodia who suffered mass deportation, most were treated as ‘immigrants’.”

In order to live peacefully, ethnic Vietnamese without papers like Chan Dara seem to tacitly accept that they could be thrown out of the country if the opposition were to take power. Despite being born here, some describe their residence as “temporary”.

“I can’t read or write Khmer, and the authorities are just allowing us to live temporarily here. If a new policy requires us to leave, we will leave Cambodia because we know we came to live here just temporarily,” Dara said.

Her reasons for thus supporting the CPP illuminate the feelings of most.

“I don’t care who leads the country as long as they allow us to live in peace. I don’t care. However, I know that the CPP is making it easy for us to live here, so we like their policy.”

Her sister, Hong Ra, 62, who sat behind her on a wooden bed sorting vegetables, chimed in.

“We are all Vietnamese, but we speak Khmer like Cambodians.... My husband is Khmer, so why should I not speak it?”

Despite being eligible for official documents as she is married to a Khmer, Ra faces a different, more politically nuanced predicament.

“I also want a Khmer ID card, but the authorities don’t want to register us because they are scared there will be an outcry from Khmers living here. They will ask why the authorities gave an ID card to Vietnamese.”

*Srey Neak’s real name has been changed to protect her identity.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING KOAM CHANRASMEY

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