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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ...while many Vietnamese strive to be Khmaer-sot

...while many Vietnamese strive to be Khmaer-sot

Christine Leonard finds that despite persecution, many Vietnamese change their

lifestyle, beliefs and language to become "Cambodian".

"TO be Cambodian," Seanglim Bit wrote, "is to be a descendant of

a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the

achievements of any of the ancient civilizations" (1991:3). Cambodian is the

ecumenical term usually used to describe the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Cambodia

(as well as former inhabitants now living in other countries). However, while the

word Cambodian "in the sense of nationality includes Chinese, Chams, and other

groups," as Ebihara, Mortland, and Ledgerwood point out (1994:161), Bit arguably

refers more specifically here to ethnic Khmers. The self-defining Khmer language

term is Khmaer, which can be used interchangeably to refer to both Cambodians in

the sense described above and to ethnic Khmers, as well as to Cambodia itself (srok-Khmaer).

And yet, as Prasso suggests, as a group [Khmaer] seek to define the "pure"

ethnic Khmers among them and then accord status to other associated ethnic groups,

or groups of mixed origin, who are granted citizens' rights according to their historical

association with or intermarriage with Khmer people over long periods. (1995: 4)

Prasso posits a "descending hierarchy of relatedness to the Khmer," and

according to this hierarchy, the ethnic Vietnamese occupy the lowest rung, with "mixed"

Vietnamese-Khmer at a slightly higher level. Khmers and Vietnamese speak languages

from different linguistic families: Mon-Khmer as opposed to Viet-Muong (Lebar, Hickey,

and Musgrave 1964). Phenotypically (and thus, genetically or "racially,"

although the accuracy of scientific differentiation and categorization will not be

debated here), Vietnamese are believed to be more Sinicized, descended from North

and East Asia (i.e., China/Mongolia) as opposed to South Asia (i.e., India). Vietnamese

(women) wear wide-legged black trousers and conical straw hats; Khmer women wear

silk skirts. Bit concludes that Vietnam and Vietnamese "[offer] cultural contrasts

on almost every point... Distinctly different traditions govern everything from styles

of dress to values and codes of behavior" (1991: 12). Indeed, many Khmers believe

that the very essence of what it means to be Khmer lies in direct opposition to that

of the Vietnamese. Many of the ethnic Vietnamese thus may be Cambodians, but in the

minds of the majority ethnic group, they are certainly not Khmer.

As a result, the ethnic Vietnamese have faced physical intimidation, verbal harassment,

disenfranchisement. On a regular basis, they must deal with the fact that to many

Khmers they are yuon, with all of the term's negative connotations. It is unfortunate,

but not surprising, then, that in wanting to continue living in Cambodia the ethnic

Vietnamese have made some "cultural" changes, away from traditional Vietnamese

and toward Khmer culture.

This essay explores some of the effects of anti-Vietnamese sentiment and action on

the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. The interpretations and conclusions here are the

results of fieldwork conducted both within the various districts of Phnom Penh and

in various provincial centers and rural villages throughout Cambodia.


One of the most critical means of gaining acceptance into a culture other than one's

own is mastering that culture's language. As a Khmer of mixed ancestry whose physical

appearance often stopped others from believing my "Khmerness" (Prasso 1995),

I personally witnessed the "increase" in the level of other Khmers' acceptance

of me as I gained proficiency in Khmer language. The same holds true for the ethnic

Vietnamese here. When I asked Khmers about their relationship with Vietnamese, if

their feelings were positive they would say, as did one village chief: "there

are no problems - they live with us, they speak Khmer like us, their children study

in school with Khmer children", attesting to the importance of language as a

part of Khmer cultural identity. In areas in which police are attempting to "weed

out" Cambodians from non-Cambodians, the Khmer language is used as one gauge

of "Khmerness." If one can speak Khmer clearly, he or she is more likely

to be believed as Khmer - physical appearance, name, and other indicators notwithstanding.

Not surprisingly, then, while many of the ethnic Vietnamese individuals and families

use Vietnamese in the home, many do not encourage their children to learn Vietnamese.

Khmer is considered more important. As one woman in a farming village in Takeo noted,

"[My children] know how to use Vietnamese because we speak it at home, but I

don't teach them. They learn Khmer in school and that is important because we are

in Cambodia." The individuals whom I spoke to showed little regret about the

"disappearance" of their mother tongue among their children. A cake-seller

in Kampot notes: "No, I'm not sorry if my child forgets Vietnamese language

because we live in Cambodia and so we must know Khmer language." The lack of

regret about her child not knowing her mother tongue is reinforced by the fear of

others' dislike. She continued: "Some [Khmer] people say they don't like to

hear the Vietnamese language. Some people who went to Phnom Penh told me that if

you speak Vietnamese there the police will penalize you so I don't want to speak

it ... No, the police have never forbidden me to speak Vietnamese, but this is Cambodia

so I don't want to speak it."

One bilingual man noted that while he personally was glad that he knew both Vietnamese

and Khmer, particularly because knowing both helped him in business, others felt

that because he could speak both he was untrustworthy. When he was with his Vietnamese

cousins, they didn't like him to speak Khmer, and if he did they insulted him as

the "enemy". "They tell me that if I want to speak Khmer I should

go to Khmer peoples' houses and not to their houses, to eat with Khmers and not with


In a village in Kampot, a middle-aged man said "we are near the border and really

we must know all the languages. Vietnamese come here every day to trade so we must

know Vietnamese. Some speak Chinese so it's good to know that, also." But, "we

live in Cambodia, so we must know Khmer language. So my child goes to Khmer school."

Others reiterated that while everyday life may require that they speak Vietnamese,

Khmer was more important. Most of the children went to Khmer schools if they went

at all (and many do not). And even in areas where there are Vietnamese schools, such

as in Phnom Penh, much of the stress is on learning Khmer with only a secondary emphasis

on Vietnamese.

Thus one ethnic Vietnamese response to the pressures placed upon them culturally

is to adopt a new linguistic identity. Their mother tongue or that of their ancestors

is abandoned, without much remorse.


Before the destruction of the Pol Pot regime, there was a significant number of

Vietnamese Catholic churches throughout Cambodia. One elderly man in Kratie told

of a French missionary "David" who attracted a lot of converts. "We

loved David!" he said. "Many, many Vietnamese followed him to the church...

I can remember him well. When he died we were all very, very sad." To judge

by the number of Catholic churches, as well as by the testimony of those who were

in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge period, there were a great number of Vietnamese

Catholics. (While there were also many Vietnamese Buddhists, the congregations of

churches were almost entirely comprised of ethnic Vietnamese). Like most other religious

structures in Cambodia, most of the Vietnamese churches were defiled by the Khmer

Rouge. And while many of the Vietnamese who had fled from these areas returned during

the Heng Samrin PRK/SoC regime, they rebuilt almost none of these. Vietnamese Buddhist

temples similarly destroyed have also been left to decompose. In Kompong Cham province,

for example, all that remains of what was once a large Catholic church is a cluster

of large stones from what once formed the church's foundation. Several families of

Khmers returning after the Khmer Rouge regime literally built their homes on top

of them. Some did not know that the rubble was the remains of a church. Some did

know, however, and led me to the rear of the remains of a graveyard. All of the gravestones

that were decipherable had inscriptions in Vietnamese. In Kratie, a former Vietnamese

pagoda is now used as a district hospital; a former Catholic church is used as a

provinical and district government meeting-house.

Most of the Vietnamese, moreover, claimed that the majority of the Vietnamese in

Cambodia now are Buddhist, and furthermore, they now follow Khmer Buddhism. Several

claimed that "Vietnamese Buddhism and Khmer Buddhism are the same" or "close

enough." In fact, the Vietnamese follow the Mahayana school while the Khmer

are Theravada Buddhists. With the exception of one large Catholic community in Phnom

Penh, Catholic disciples seem few and far between, or at least, do not wish to be

identified. A large Catholic charity organization refused to lead us to the several

Vietnamese communities to which it ministers for fear of less-than-benevolent motives

on our part. A elderly fortune teller said she was "Khmaer in every way,"

and at first told me she followed "Buddhism just like the Khmers." I later

noticed pictures of Catholic saints in her room, after which she admitted that she

was a "follower of Jesus Christ." Most who admitted they were Catholic

noted that they practiced or prayed in their own homes or in the homes of others

who were also Catholic because there were no churches in which to pray. A Vietnamese

man in Kratie noted that when he was single he followed Christianity, but after he

married (he married according to Khmer tradition), he "became" Cambodian,

which also meant becoming a Buddhist. A respondent in Kompong Cham said that several

years ago, a Christian missionary came to town hoping to convert the ethnic Vietnamese

population, but he attracted almost no followers. He thus left the province, and,

the respondent continued, "Now no one comes here and there is no church."


Khmers swear that they can automatically tell the difference between Khmers and Vietnamese,

and even between Vietnamese and Chinese. Vietnamese (women), Khmers say, wear pants,

and in particular, wide-legged black pants. Khmer women wear skirts. Vietnamese wear

conical straw hats; Khmers wear kramas.

Apparently there are other indicators as well; one Khmer informant told me that even

if someone could speak Khmer fluently and dressed like a Khmer, he would still be

able to tell by the way that individual walked, sat, moved, and ate that that individual

was Vietnamese.

For those less astute at determining the differences, however, the lines between

Vietnamese and Khmer, at least in terms of the more visible cultural indicators,

are becoming more and more blurred. Vietnamese eat Khmer food, and vice versa. More

and more Vietnamese women have begun to wear traditional Khmer silk skirts. Particularly

in the countryside, ethnic Khmers have been seen wearing the typically-Vietnamese

conical straw hats. As mentioned more and more Vietnamese can speak Khmer. Most Vietnamese

go to modern Khmer or western doctors and hospitals rather than to traditional Vietnamese

healers. Intermarriage with Khmers over generations has led to a "blurring"

of physical features which in the past enabled one to differentiate between Sino-

or Viet-Khmers and "pure" Khmers (see Prasso 1995:4). And, moreover, and

perhaps most importantly, the ethnic Vietnamese themselves have for the most part

chosen to identify with Khmers and as Cambodians.

A recurrent theme in my research was an inability, or at least, a lack of desire,

to discuss Vietnamese customs or traditional stories and legends. An elderly Vietnamese

man in Kampot who came to Cambodia in the early 1980s stressed that he and his wife

would live in Cambodia forever, and would never even go to visit Vietnam, even though

most of his children live there. One of his sons happened to be visiting him at the

time of the interview, and he commented: "This son is still single. I want him

to marry a girl who lives in Cambodia. She can be [ethnically] Khmer, Chinese, or

Vietnamese - that's up to my son, but he must get married in Cambodia and then live

in Cambodia because I don't want to go to Vietnam! Even though I'm poor, if I knew

that I could go to Vietnam and become a rich man I still would not go back... I want

to die in Cambodia."

Some ethnic Vietnamese have even begun to ascribe to stereotypes about Vietnamese,

despite the fact that many have faced discrimination on the basis on these stereotypes

themselves. I spoke to a young ethnic Vietnamese woman in Kampot who is now married

to a Khmer. She was pointed out as an ethnic Vietnamese by some Khmers in the village,

but described herself to me as a "Khmaer," and made several unflattering

comments about the Vietnamese. She remarked: "Here in Cambodia most people dislike

Vietnamese, and I don't blame them because some of the Vietnamese who come here are

bad people - mostly prostitutes and thiefs. I hate them. Yes, some people discriminated

against me when I first came because they thought maybe I was a prostitute... but

now I am married and I don't have this problem anymore.

In areas in which there is a substantial Chinese as well as Vietnamese population,

some ethnic Vietnamese identify as Chinese because they perceive that to be Chinese

is more acceptable to Khmers than to be Vietnamese. The long-time ethnic Vietnamese

residents of Cambodia make generational distinctions between themselves and those

Vietnamese who have just come (while many Khmers arguably do not). As encapsulated

in the words of one woman, speaking about her husband and herself, "We are Cambodian!

We have lived here our whole lives except for Pol Pot. We are not like the [Vietnamese]

prostitutes who have just come. Compared to them, we are Khmaer-sot ("pure"


In conducting this research effort, I found a recurrent theme in what I might term

yearning, or even desperation on the part of the ethnic Vietnamese to be considered

Cambodian, if not Khmer. This desperation is the result of the historical and current

socio-economic and political contexts in which the ethnic Vietnamese found and find

themselves in Cambodia. As a result of the "threats" to their existence

based upon their "Vietnameseness," the ethnic Vietnamese have begun to

"lose," or at least have attempted to lose, their identification as such.

They return to Cambodia, their homeland, in the face of physical danger. They pay

fines and taxes levied especially upon them and endure police harassment - anything

to avoid being expelled from Cambodia.

In essence, many ethnic Vietnamese want to become "Cambodians."



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