A version of this article first appeared in Vietnamese in the online journal Talawas (Autumn 2009)
Someone once said, “To understand others, you must first understand yourself.” We believe that understanding the Khmer language alone and living in Cambodia is necessary but not sufficient to truly open up the Khmer soul to non-Khmers. Khmerness is speaking the language, understanding Khmer idioms, appreciating Khmer jokes and their nuances, and enjoying Khmer music and poetry. It is a feeling that resonates with Khmer people living in Cambodia. Being Khmer should not be synonymous with Pol Pot. The actions that Pol Pot committed are complete anathema to the Khmer soul. A Khmer is someone who is proud of the civilization that Angkor has left as its legacy.
The Khmer have lived under threat of extinction (perhaps even saved by French colonialism), and who have witnessed the disappearance of Khmer territory to their powerful neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand. This is the context within which we write.
As Ronnie Yimsut has elaborated in a 2005 online essay: “These [invader] perceptions about Vietnam are also quite valid, historically speaking. The so-called Kampuchea Krom (area in … southern Vietnam including Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong delta region), and the former “Kingdom of Champa” (area in northern Vietnam) are two historical examples of successful Vietnamese annexation and expansionism.”
Pol Kang wrote in a 2004 article, “During the period 1813-15, Vietnamese perpetrated the infamous massacre known to every Khmer as prayat kompup te ong. It involved the most barbarous torture technique, in which the Khmer were buried alive up to their neck. Their heads were used as the stands for a wood stove to boil water for the Vietnamese masters.
Let us consider only the issue of language and the word used by Cambodians for the people of Vietnam: yuon. This remains a bone of contention because many non-Khmer have argued that the word is fundamentally racist in common parlance.
The word yuon may have come from the word yueh, what the Mandarin Chinese call Vietnam, yueh nam. The word nam means south in Chinese. Yueh indicates the name of the people of that region. Therefore, yueh means Viet or Vietnamese in Chinese, and yueh nam means the yueh people of the south. In this case, south means south of China. South Vietnam pronounces it yeaknam.
Chou Ta-Kuan (Zhou Daguan), the celebrated Chinese ambassador to Cambodia in the 13th century, indicated in his report that there was already a large population of Chinese settling in Cambodia at that time. He said that the Chinese preferred life in the Khmer Empire because it was easier than in China. There were a lot of Chinese men marrying the native Cambodian women. The word yuon may have derived from the Chinese word yueh to indicate the Vietnamese.
George Coedes, an expert on Southeast Asia, found evidence of the word yuon inscribed in Khmer on a stele dating to the time of the Khmer King Suryavarman I (1002-1050). Adhémar Leclère, a colonial French governor of Cambodia who lived there 25 years, used the word yuon throughout his book Histoire du Cambodge depuit le 1er siècle de notre ère (Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1914: 99, 413, 432, 434, 435, and 469).
While yuon has been equated with the word “savage” by David Roberts in a 2002 article for the Washington Times, in fact, the word savage in Cambodian translates to pourk prey or phnong (which unfortunately also refers to an ethnic hill tribe minority living in Cambodia). Cambodians call Vietnamese yuon the same way they call Indian khleung, Burmese phoumea, French barang and Chinese chen. These are all xenonyms and Khmer transliterations.
When the Vietnamese sometimes call Khmer people ngoi mien (when they should use ngoi campuchia), this is inaccurate because the word mien is the name for a minority group that is not ethnically Khmer. According to the Mien Network (http://www.miennetwork.com/miencommunity/history.html), “The Mien are a sub-group of the Yao in China, and they originated from Southwest China. According to 1995 population figures published by the Tribal Research Institute of Chiang Mai, there are over 40,000 Mien living in 173 villages in Northern Thailand. Larger numbers are found in Laos (85,000) and Vietnam (474,000), with the majority still in China. According to the 1990 census, there are about 2.1 million Yao living in China.”
Thus, it would be like saying of an Englishman that he is Basque. The geography is completely off, but the possible connotation may be of a nation without a state. In the late 17th century, the Vietnamese court of Hue changed the names of the Cambodian princesses Ang Mei, Ang Pen, Ang Peou and Ang Snguon to the Vietnamese-sounding names of Ngoc-van, Ngoc-bien, Ngoc-tu, and Ngoc-nguyen, respectively. Phnom Penh is also known in Vietnamese as Nam Vang. Indeed, our venerated Phnom Penh noodles are otherwise advertised in Vietnamese as heu tiev nam vang.
Moreover, while we call Chao Doc and Saigon (what is now HCMC) Mot Chrouk and Prey Nokor, respectively, this is the equivalent phenomenon in use when it comes to the word yuon, that of a xenonym in current use.
We surmise that confusion over the word yuon arises from the fact that the word Vietnam(ese) exists. The misunderstanding is that for Khmer people to opt for using the word yuon instead of the word Vietnam(ese) gives non-Khmer the impression that we are racists. To say this would be the equivalent of saying that anyone who uses the word Cambodian instead of Khmer is racist.
When we speak in Khmer, it is very awkward and does not sound right to the ear to use the word Vietnam, and even less so Vietnamese.
However, when we speak in English or French, it is more natural to use the word Vietnamese or Vietnamien, and it would become awkward to use the word yuon.
For example, if we want to say that “fishermen are mostly Vietnamese”, and both words, yuon and Vietnamese, are used in a Khmer sentence, the result would be as follows: pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè youn, or pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè choun cheat vietnam. It therefore requires more syllables to use the word Vietnam to describe the Vietnamese because we have to say choun cheat vietnam (literally National of Vietnam) to describe a Vietnamese person. We cannot say pourk neak nisart trey keu chreun tè vietnam because Vietnam is a country. In Khmer, the word Vietnamese per se does not exist unless one uses the word yuon.
It is rare in the Khmer language to have a racist word attributed to different ethnic groups. However, this does not mean that salty language does not exist. To the contrary, when wishing to disrespect someone, we add an adjective “a” in front of the word that we intend to use. If we say a yuon, then it is a sign of disrespect, but not necessarily a racist remark. To be racist requires that the following words be used: a katop (equating a Vietnamese to a diaper), a gnieung (a probable play on the common Vietnamese family name Nguyen) or a sakei daung (equating a Vietnamese to a coconut husk). Some might compare the word yuon to the word “nigger”, but that is too strong and ahistorical a comparison. In any case, to have called someone in 1860 racist for using the word nigger would be historically inaccurate. These were conventions then, and evolved out of fashion later.
The only basis to this is when, during the Lon Nol period (Khmer Republic 1970-1975), yuon was indeed used in a derogatory fashion during attacks on Vietnamese people. Thus, the word took on a negative connotation in the 1970s and was allegedly banned in the 1980s when Cambodia was occupied by Vietnam. Sour Vietnamese soup, samlar machou yuon, became samlar machou vietnam, but reverted to its original name in the 1990s. Of course, the Khmer Rouge also used the word yuon, as when they characterised the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) as yuon-TAC, an agent of the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian People’s Party. But again, just because the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer Republicans hijacked the word does not mean it must now be abandoned in everyday language.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not represent the views of their employers or the US government.
Sophal Ear is an assistant professor of national security affairs in Monterey, California. Kenneth T So is an engineer and Khmer historian.