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The word ‘yuon’ and its origins

Cambodia National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy speaks to supporters at Freedom Park last year
Cambodia National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy speaks to supporters at Freedom Park last year. Pha Lina

The word ‘yuon’ and its origins

Dear Editor,

In two recent articles titled “Killing underscores animosity” and “Rainsy alleges intimidation” published respectively on February 18 and 21, 2014, The Phnom Penh Post repeated the foreign-entertained allegation about the “use of inflammatory rhetoric in regard to Vietnam” attributed to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and myself.

The origin and the cause of the controversy rest on one single word: “yuon”, simply meaning Vietnam or Vietnamese in Khmer language.

Some people, especially Westerners who know little about the Khmer language, history and culture, allege that the word yuon has a derogatory meaning and even a racist connotation. Thus, the alleged “inflammatory rhetoric” on the part of Khmer people who use this word …

These Westerners suggest that the Khmer people should, when speaking in Khmer language, replace the Khmer word yuon with the Vietnamese word “Vietnam” any time we want to “properly” speak about our Eastern neighbours.

Actually, yuon is a traditional appellation which has no racist meaning. It has been used by the Khmer, the Thai and the Cham for more than 1,000 years to refer to a people recently known as “Vietnam” or the “Vietnamese”.

The Thai people, whose language, culture and traditions are very close to the Khmer people’s, use the word yuon in their every day parlance to designate the Vietnamese in an absolutely neutral way.

This fact is ignored by the Westerners who question the use of this same word yuon by the Khmer people in Cambodia.

In Kampuchea Krom, the [former] 21 Khmer provinces constituting Cochinchina, which was annexed by Vietnam in 1949, the native Khmers who have been in contact with the yuon/Vietnamese for more than 400 years, continue to call the latter yuon without the concerned Vietnamese feeling offended.

This fact is also ignored by the abovementioned Westerners.

The word “Vietnam” entered the Khmer vocabulary less than 40 years ago, mainly for political reasons related to the war between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s.

As part of its war propaganda, the Vietnamese army started the characterisation and propagation of yuon as a pejorative term in the second half of 1977 when Vietnam was preparing for its invasion of Khmer Rouge-led Democratic Kampuchea.

This Vietnamese propaganda itself came as a reaction to anti-Vietnamese policies under the unfortunate Lon Nol and Pol Pot regimes, both of which hijacked the word yuon by giving it a negative meaning under very specific and deplorable circumstances.

But this black period extended for less than nine years in Cambodia’s long history. For more than a thousand years, this neutral word had been a piece of the Khmer language and tradition, as evidenced by the absolutely neutral meaning of yuon given in the most authoritative Khmer language dictionary published by the Buddhist Institute in 1967, which contains no mention of “Vietnam” as a possible alternative to “yuon”.

After the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army in January 1979 and the installation of a pro-Hanoi regime, the appellation yuon was practically banned, thus erasing a bit of the Khmer language and culture.

However, the situation following the end of the Vietnamese occupation and the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords is much different from the one of the 1980s, and the Khmer people should regain full access to their traditional culture, which suffered both under Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese rules.

Only a little bit further back in history, in the first half of the 19th century, Cambodians had endured an even more painful experience. They were forced by the occupying yuon (the appellation “Vietnamese” did not exist yet at that time) to abandon their language, culture and traditions.

It was under the policy of Vietnamisation conducted by Emperor Ming Mang and General Truong Minh Giang, who acted as a viceroy ruling Cambodia as a colony, with an iron fist.

Countless Khmers who resisted the Vietnamese attempt to destroy their culture were massacred in what could be seen as the beginning of a genocide. Under any foreign domination, the effort of the oppressed nation to preserve their language, culture and traditions is an act of resistance.

Presently in the 21st century, in order to discredit its political opponents and to deflect public attention from real problems, the current authoritarian pro-Hanoi government – whose top leaders were put in power by the Vietnamese communist army in 1979 – has depicted those Cambodians who continue to use the term yuon as “racists” and “extremists”.

This is part of an international campaign to denigrate the patriotic and democratic opposition and its leaders.

Prime Minister Hun Sen started this campaign to mislead foreign leaders and gullible Westerners with the help of foreign fake experts but real mercenaries (Allen Myers, Raoul Jennar, etc) who know little about our country.

In an October 3, 1998, letter to US senators John McCain and John Kerry, Hun Sen capitalised on the senators’ ignorance of the term yuon by stating: “Mr Sam Rainsy referred to me as a yuon puppet. In case Your Excellencies are not familiar with the term yuon, yuon is a highly derogative and racist term used to denigrate those of Vietnamese ancestry”.

Hun Sen is known for his ties to the Vietnamese. What I said was nothing new.

But Hun Sen chose to attack my use of the term yuon rather than answer the charge that he served the interest of a foreign nation rather than his own.

It is politically expedient but historically inaccurate to accuse those Khmers who denounce the colonisation of Cambodia and are only fighting for the survival of their nation, of being “racist”.

Based on the use of a single word, the accusation of racism is groundless and inconsistent because countless people and organisations – from the late King Norodom Sihanouk to government officials to pro-CPP media to ordinary citizens – used or are using the terms yuon and “Vietnam” interchangeably.

Many foreigners, especially Westerners, have been misled and manipulated in this yuon semantical controversy, which actually hides a broader political and psychological warfare. No objective and sensible person would engage in the polemic without first trying to understand its political, historical and cultural background.

In light of the above explanation, the two aforementioned articles in The Phnom Penh Post contain groundless and unfair allegations, especially the one indirectly implicating the CNRP and I in a heinous crime.

This allegation wrongly suggests that, after the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge and their crimes against humanity, there are “killing words” such as yuon.

Simplistic and sensationalist comments were made and reproduced out of the context of last month’s horrible street killing when some people were heard shouting “yuon are fighting Khmers”.

Cambodia is a country characterised by a tradition of violence and impunity.

The most trivial dispute can lead to murder, the smallest robbery can result in the death of the alleged thief, and the most unfounded allegation of black magic can lead to the assassination of alleged sorcerers given the tolerance for vigilante justice.

Over the last few years, hundreds of Cambodians have lost their lives under such circumstances. In such a context, the worst could happen anytime anywhere regardless of the ethnic background of the victims.

In a similar context, the worst could also happen in the streets of any city of Israel or Palestine on such a cry as “Arabs are fighting Jews” or “Jews are fighting Arabs”, without anybody being racist.

In order to prevent such tragedies, education is the key word. All responsible leaders must join hands to fully expose any historical truth without bias and to promote tolerance.

More importantly, instead of ignoring the people’s legitimate concerns, they must propose adequate solutions to problems such as social violence, impunity, corruption, lawlessness, unemployment and illegal immigration.

Sam Rainsy,
CNRP President

Editor’s note: When the Post refers to accusations made against the CNRP for using “inflammatory rhetoric”, we do not only refer to the use of the word yuon by political leaders (which has been condemned by local human rights organisations), but also wider references made towards a specific ethnic group, rather than a foreign government, by the opposition party.


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