I was utterly surprised and distressed by the extent to which some foreign nationals residing or working in Cambodia criticised or even condemned the usage of the word “yuon” as pejorative during last month’s legislative elections. Such unmerited condemnation clearly showed the lack of understanding toward the host country and its people.
During my childhood, I heard my grandparents, parents and neighbours alike routinely referred to Vietnamese ethnic living in my district as “yuon”. Was that word abrasive, offensive or disrespectful? Absolutely not.
The word “yuon” has always been an integral part of the rich Khmer vocabulary as it can be found everywhere, whether in common spoken language or ancient textbooks and literature.
We have been using that word without passion or prejudice for centuries, just as we have been using the words “barang”, “chen”, “cham”, “kloeng”, “leav” and “siam”, to refer to the French, Chinese, Muslim, Indian, Laotian and Thai nationals respectively.
After the Vietnamese army took over Cambodia in 1979, people in my village were pointedly told by the authority not to call Vietnamese soldiers “yuon”. For the few who dared to ask why, they never got straight answers. For many home-grown nationalists, however, there was little doubt or secret about the real motives behind prohibiting the usage of the word “yuon” then.
In the history of Cambodia and Vietnam’s often-complicated relations, Cambodia was for most of the time an occupied country. Some scholars and historians even assert that had France not placed the Kingdom under its colonial empire between 1887 and 1953, Cambodia would have disappeared from the world map for good.
Regrettably, when it comes to judging Cambodians’ attitude toward fellow Vietnamese, certain outsiders and media harshly accuse Cambodians of excessive Vietnamophobia – unjustly perceiving Cambodians as an agitator or troublemaker while conveniently downplaying or ignoring altogether relevant history and the repeated misfortunes to which Cambodians had been constantly subjected to.
Many Cambodians, myself included, are totally at a loss with such uncharacteristic perceptions that defy all logic. It is one-sided justice that Cambodians – who are outnumbered by almost ten to one, economically and population-wise, and who have seen the size of their country shrinking to the verge of extinction – be singled out as a troublemaker.
This selective form of justice does not help to heal the bitter wounds of the past. Instead, it only serves to encourage some cunning political leaders to continue pushing forward their hidden expansionist agenda.
Cambodia definitely has an incredibly tough job ahead for balancing its “reasonable accommodation” policy toward foreign settlers and its badly needed “self-preservation” policy to safeguard its future.
In the meantime, to suggest, let alone condemn, the customary usage of the word “yuon” as pejorative or anything of that nature is to overstretch the limit of political correctness at best, and to live in a state of invincible ignorance at worst.