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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - What's In a Name? It's All in How You Say It

What's In a Name? It's All in How You Say It

Many people assert that "youn," the common name used by Khmers to refer

to Vietnamese people, is pejorative, and that there is a hereditary antagonism that

is dividing Khmers and Vietnamese.

Not totally convinced, I questioned several Cambodians. Apart from the word "Viet,"

which is a foreign word (like "Kazakh" or "Apache"), there is

no other word besides "youn" in the old Khmer language to refer to the

Vietnamese. Moreover, no one finds the word pejorative in itself-it designates in

a neutral way-but the connotation is obviously a reflection of the sentiments of

the speakers towards the Vietnamese. And with things as they are now, a large array

of feelings may be associated with "youn."

In 1978, Pol Pot wrote in the Black Paper: "Youn is the name given by Kampuchea's

people to the Vietnamese since the epoch of Ankor and it means 'savage.' The words

'Vietnam' and 'Vietnamese' are very recent and not often used by Kampuchea's people."

This is not a futile exercise in semantics. In the spring of 1992, U.N. authorities

realized that Khmer Rouge radio was launching racist diatribes against Vietnamese

immigrants. There was the distinct possibility that the Khmer Rouge were trying to

spark pogroms to further their political aims.

In August UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi strongly objected to the propagandist use of

racist crudities and of the word "youn," which he called derogatory.

In a telegram dated Aug. 20 Khieu Samphan brushed aside Akashi's remark and advised

Akashi, "to do a more complete and more responsible research on the origins

of the words 'youn' and 'Vietnam.'" He added that under Vietnamese occupation,

the use of the word "youn" could be punished by two years in jail-which

is a pure invention-and suggested that the United Nations, by forbidding the use

of the word, was condoning the alleged Vietnamese "strategy of Indochinese Federation."

This typical Khmer Rouge paranoia is shared by many noncom-munist Khmer politicians

and intellectuals. Nevertheless, it could be of interest to address Khieu Samphan's

demand and look into the origins of the word.

One thing we know is that the word "youn" is very old. Though I do not

know if it is mentioned in the Angkor inscriptions (Cambodia and Vietnam did not

have a common border then; Champa was between them), the antiquity of the term can

be accepted. Thai and Burmese also call Vietnamese "youn" with nothing

derogatory implied in their use of the word.

Edward Schafer, in The Vermillion Bird, writes, "In a few villages of Binh Thuan

in southern Vietnam, no longer in touch with their former Chinese neighbors, are

the remnants of the once rich and powerful Chams, now small enclaves among the Vietnamese,

whom they contemptuously style yu'o'n-that it, Yavana (to use the Sanskrit original),

or, ultimately, 'Ionians'-a term suggesting subnormal, devilish men."

Inhabitants of ancient Iona or Ionaka (i.e., Ionia, the oriental Aegean coast of

Greece), cropped up rather abruptly on the borders of the Indus River, brought there

by Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. The commotion was felt in the rest of the Indian

subcontinent, although there was more negotiation than warfare.

We know that Alexander finally decided to turn back and run to Babylon, where he

soon after died from a malaria bout. These Ionian intruders were not your ordinary

barbarians; they came with an organized army, a script and a government, not to mention

the arts which produced the magnificent Gandara sculptures.

Alexander had left but the Greeks remained and organized Greek-style kingdoms in

what is now Afghanistan and part of Pakistan. They were well known by the Indian

rulers and there are several references to them, the "yona," in one of

the oldest historical texts of India, the Edicts of Ashoka carved in Pali on rocks

and stone pillars.

"Yona" came to mean "foreigners" in Indian usage, or, more precisely,

non-Indian foreigners.

Transplanted onto the Indochinese coast, where they "civilized" what the

Chinese called "the naked tattooed savages," the pilgrims and merchants

from India quickly realized that to the north lay a threat to their trading posts

and settlements, the threat of an organized force equipped with an army, a script,

a government, technology, a body of art, etc. The term "yona" fit them

like a glove. The first Indianized people-the Mons and the Chams-used it.

In Champa, "yona" designated the Chinese colony of Giao Chi before it freed

itself to become Vietnam. In the common culture flux of Hinduization, the Cambodians

most probably borrowed "yona" from the Mons-living in what is now the central

plain of Thailand-and adopted the term which was already detached from the area to

which it originally referred.

The writer of the Black Paper, Pol Pot, absorbed in his desire to show that the Cambodians

have hated the Vietnamese from time immemorial, could certainly not have known that

he was repeating a term historically marked by ambiguity-i.e. both admiration and

fear-and born out of the clash of two civilizations that were different but equally

full of themselves.

Ironically, the old Greek legends attribute to Ion, the eponymous ancestor of the

Ionians, the utopian division of society in four classes, the fourth of which is

made of "guardians" (phylakes), of which Pol Pot offered an impressive


In order to give Khieu Samphan a complete reply, it should be added that the word

"Viet" is an old Chinese word meaning, at the beginning of Chinese history,

"beyond, across the Yang Tse Kiang," probably referring to the first fishing

communities in what is now the area of Shanghai, and later along the coast of Fukien.

Tradition says that some of these tribes later migrated to Tonkin. The local populations,

before the advent of Chinese colonization 2,000 years ago, were known as Au-Lac,

again Chinese words; "Nam" is the Chinese nan, the south.

"Viet" is now part and parcel of the Khmer vocabulary and may be used as

a normal ethonym. Khmers generally ignore that the word "youn" means only

"foreigner." It is only because of recent history that this word is now

tainted with anguish and despise.

The defense by Khieu Samphan is not innocent, since any propaganda based on hatred

is sure to produce results which may be catastrophic to everyone.



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