Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Better wages Woo Vietnamese workers to Phnom Penh

Better wages Woo Vietnamese workers to Phnom Penh

Better wages Woo Vietnamese workers to Phnom Penh

Soot and smoke rise from clothes dying carts fronting the weed-filled park and overflowing

garbage dumpsters next to Psah Chah (Old Market) in Phnom Penh.

There, several Vietnamese families eke out a living on the streets. Under the shade

of an umbrella or torn awning, they have set up open air "shops" on the

crumbling cement sidewalks, where they dye second-hand clothes from Singapore or

repair bicycles and motorcycles.

Most of this group of five families have lived in Cambodia all their lives except

during the 1970s, when pogroms by Lon Nol and Pol Pot forced them back to Vietnam.

But with Cambodia's relative prosperity in recent years, many have returned to Phnom

Penh, where a daily income of 2,000 riel (about U.S. $1) is considerably better than

they could make in Vietnam.

"I wanted to make money, so I came to Cambodia," says Tran Dung, his hands

smudged with black dye. Tran-who is ethnic Vietnamese but was born in Cambodia-hopes

to stay in Cambodia indefinitely.

If he could vote, he says, he would vote for Sihanouk. "My wife is Khmer,"

he says. "She grew up during Sihanouk's time and she remembers Sihanouk treating

Vietnamese like his nieces and nephews."

Across the street, Ieng Van Noeun hunches next to a motorbike he is repairing while

his wife dyes clothes from their cart.

Asked whether he and his wife fear anti-Vietnamese violence or reprisals, Noeun says,

"We're just like them," motioning to a rickety shack sheltering several

Khmer squatters, forced to the city from their farms in Pursat by the drought. "But

if there's a problem we can go back to Vietnam."

Noeun will be able to vote in next year's election, since both he and his parents

were born here. Unlike many Khmer, he is not reticent about sharing his political


"I support Hun Sen," he says. "If Hun Sen disappears, we worry. We'd

vote for Hun Sen because he's the one who supports us-if we get to vote."

His wife,, 38, Keo Sokhan, is ethnic Khmer. She says that many Vietnamese are fearful

because of incidents like the massacre in July of two Vietnamese families in Kampot


"Of course we're afraid of the Khmer Rouge, " she says. "If they come

in like that, we have to run back to Vietnam."

Both Noeun and Keo are fluent in Khmer, which makes a big difference. "If you

can't speak Khmer, you have problems," Noeun says. "We don't tell anyone

we're Vietnamese."

As to why Khmer and Vietnamese frequently don't get along, he says: "The Khmer

Rouge hate us because when they attacked Vietnam, Vietnam invaded. Of course they

hate us."

Another friend, Bot Nguyen, 42, chimes in. "But if Vietnam didn't attack, all

Khmer would have died," he says. "If Vietnam didn't help them, there wouldn't

be a Cambodia."

It begins to rain, and the families crowd in under the awning, next to the steaming

vats of dye. Another clothes dyer, Hung, 31, comes from mixed heritage, born of a

Chinese father and Vietnamese mother-both of whom were born in Cambodia.

Hung was born near Chroy Changwar Bridge in Phnom Penh, but escaped to Vietnam during

the Khmer Rouge regime. "I came back three years ago because there's no money

there," he says. "It's a good life here."

Hung would vote for Hun Sen, he says, "because he fought together with the Vietnamese

and chased Pol Pot."

CHATOMUK: Construction Crew

In the middle of a sidestreet next to Wat Buthom a group of workers shovel gravel

and mix cement, while others cart baskets of bricks and gravel to a four-story concrete

villa they are building.

The construction crew is a mixed group: Vietnamese workers perform the skilled jobs

such as plastering or bricklaying while Khmers work as day laborers, carting dirt

and bricks. Currently eight Vietnamese and 14 Khmers work on the construction crew.

Sitting in a shack that has been temporarily erected on the edge of the building

site, foreman Pham Van Tep, 30, explains that over the last five months Vietnamese

workers have arrived to work at the site on a temporary basis to perform specialized


"We're migrant workers," Pham says. "The bricklayers just left two

weeks ago-this group here now are the plasterers. We finish tomorrow."

Before starting this job two weeks ago, Pham worked under a different contractor

on a plastering job in Kompong Som.

"We hear about the jobs by word of mouth," he explains. "People come

back to Vietnam and tell us where the work is."

Pham had never worked in Cambodia before the Kompong Som contract, but said it was

easy to cross the border. "You don't need paperwork to work in Cambodia,"

he says. "I just showed my Vietnamese I.D. card and they let me over. "

Pham attributes the animosity between Khmers and Vietnamese to "an old anger

or revenge they have against Vietnam."

"But we don't have any problems on the work sites because we work at different

tasks," he says.

Sometimes, Pham says, he's stopped by Khmer police when he rides his motorcycle.

"If you don't speak Cambodian, they penalize you," he says. "They'll

make me pay money for something harmless, like the way I button my shirt."

Pham's wife, Nguyen Ti Nguyet, 30, says many Vietnamese are coming to work in Cambodia

these days. "It's easier to live over here," she says. "You can make

money easier."

The workers say the peace agreement had nothing to do with them coming-it was the

demand for work that brought them to Cambodia.

"There are too few Cambodian skilled laborers," said Nguyen. "Cambodians

didn't have these kind of [brick and concrete] structures before."

Pham says most of the Vietnamese soldiers who were stationed in Cambodia have gone

home. "Only a small faction remain, " he says. "You can't tell most

of them are Vietnamese because they speak Cambodian. Those who remain stayed not

because of government policy, but to make money."

Pham says he'll stay in Cambodia until the work dries up, although he doesn't want

to settle here permanently.

Another woman on the construction crew, Tran Im, adds, "All the Vietnamese will

probably be repatriated before the election. They want to stabilize, so they'll send

all the Vietnamese back."

The plasterers' job ends the next day, and by nightfall they are gone and their shack


CHBA AMPOV: Breadsellers

Crossing the Bassac River at Monivong Bridge, Highway One goes all the way to Vietnam.

First stop for many travellers heading southeast out of the city is the bustling

Chba Ampov market, just the other side of the bridge.

Women and teenagers carrying wicker baskets of freshly baked French bread mob the

convoys of Peugeot and Toyota taxis that carry passengers and produce from the market

to outlying provinces or on to Vietnam.

Large numbers of ethnic Vietnamese living on the banks of the Bassac River or working

in the market have given Chba Ampov its nickname: Little Ho Chi Minh City.

Breadseller Tran Tu, 16, moved to Cambodia from Vietnam when he was very young. "The

Cambodians beat me up at school," he says. "I have Vietnamese friends and

sometimes we fight back. But there are too many of them and too few of us, so we

lose a lot. But we are smarter, so they hate us."

Vay Nguyen 41, who sells sweet flat cakes, says, "We can make money here because

we know how to make good bread. It's better than [working in] Vietnam because there's

no tax here."

Breadseller Hoa Pham goes back to Vietnam several times a year. "If we could

vote, I would vote for Hun Sen," she says. "But if he loses it's not so

hard because we can get on a bus and go back to Vietnam. You leave in the morning

and in the afternoon you're back home."


Down the aisle from the Chinese gold merchants and money changers in Olympic Market

are several noodle soup and pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) restaurants, clustered

together under the market's broad awning.

Thirty years ago Dong Thap worked as a chef at South Vietnamese President Thieu's

"White House" and one of Saigon's luxury restaurants, the Caravelle. But

today Dong, 62, waits tables for free in a friend's restaurant in the market, in

exchange for room and board.

Dong came to Cambodia six months ago out of desperation. The last ten years in Vietnam

have been tough for him financially. Twice he tried to escape by boat to the United

States but was caught and arrested both times.

"It's impossible to find work in Vietnam," he says. "It's all connection

with the party. If no connection, no job."

Dong supported himself in Vietnam as a trader, traveling from city to city buying

and selling sewing machines. But that option ended, he says, when the Vietnamese

police tightened up security.

"Cambodia was my last option," he says.

Asked about relations between Khmers and Vietnamese in Phnom Penh, Dong says: "Before,

in 1979, they treated us different because Vietnam saved them from the Khmer Rouge.

But in the last four or five years there's been a shift in attitude. They see Vietnamese

as below them because now there are more Cambodians who are wealthy. They see Vietnamese

as migrant workers, and call us 'yuon.'"

"Calling us 'yuon'-it's as if they look at Vietnamese as if we have no inherent

value. But if you think about it, Vietnamese have been building their country-literally-and

have helped Cambodia a lot. The construction workers are all Vietnamese."

Dong says he's often persecuted in Cambodia. "If they know you're Vietnamese,

they'll punish you for meaningless violations," he says.

Dong-who had his own schooling disrupted by the Japanese invasion of Vietnam during

World War II-attributes the animosity between Khmers and Vietnamese to a lack of

education in Cambodia.

"A lot of them are not educated," he says. "A lot are rural people.

They simplify things, and see Vietnamese as coming over and stealing all their gold.

People think even Saigon used to belong to Cambodia.

"But if you look at the map-the S-shape of Vietnam-how can anyone think it's

still part of Cambodia?"

Dong admitted that these days, he often fears for his safety. "I'm afraid, but

I don't feel like I've done anything wrong," he says. "I'm not a thief,

not a robber-I'm just an old man trying to make money."

Sitting quietly across from the table while Dong is talking is an older man, with

a long gray beard. A regular customer at the noodle shop and a good friend of Phap,

it turns out the elderly gentleman is not Vietnamese, but Khmer. Born in Pursat province,

he understands some Vietnamese language, but can't speak it so well.

"Cambodians and Vietnamese are like family," says Sem Saye, 65, sipping

a glass of Vietnamese filter coffee-cafe phin. Holding an ornately carved wooden

staff, he introduces himself as a kru khmer (Cambodian traditional healer).

The restaurant owner's son, Song Lam Tai, 23-an ethnic Chinese born in Cambodia-joins

the group at the table. His father met Dong in Vietnam, where the family fled in

1972 during the Lon Nol years. Returning to Cambodia in 1979, the family has been

able to establish a business here.

Rounding out the circle of friends in this coffee clatch is Yat Chou, 16. The youngest

of the group, he's an orphan who the other men look after and help support. Fluent

in both Khmer and Vietnamese, Yat was born in the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam

inhabited by many ethnic Khmer, known as Kampuchea Krom. While he considers himself

Khmer-not Vietnamese-Yat Chou will not be able to vote in Cambodia because he was

not born here.

"The southerners from the Mekong Delta all rush here, " says Dong, the

former chef. "Two thousand riel a day is good here. You can starve in Vietnam

otherwise. That's why this boy-and I-are here."
- Pacific News Service Associate Editor Andrew Lam contributed to this report.


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