It is true, as some of the sources for the PPP story said, that in the
1960s, as I recall from my own impressions, the term yuon was used "to refer
to Vietnamese without negative connotations". Yuon was also then the common
term for Vietnam in central Thailand, where its use now seems to be declining.
Farther north in Thailand, yuon had a quite different meaning. It meant the Thai
peoples of the far north of Thailand, the area of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang
Saen, etc., ancient Lanna, where the colloquial term for Vietnamese was keo, as in
There was once a consensus among historians of Southeast Asia that yuon in the sense
of Vietnamese derived from Sanskrit yavana, defined in the most authoritative Sanskrit-English
dictionary (Monier Monier-Williams, p 848), as "Ionian, Greek [barbarians?],
later also Mohammedan, European, and any foreigner or barbarian". This, remember,
was usage in India from ancient times, and in itself has no significance for yavana
or yuon in Southeast Asia.
In the traditional history of ancient India the yavana were believed to inhabit the
far northwest, now Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they were neighbors of the kamboja,
whose homeland is defined in a current Sanskrit-French dictionary (Stchoupak, Nitti,
Renou) as the region of Kabul, at one time perhaps occupied by the armies of Alexander
the Great, the source of the apparent derivation of yavana from Ionian/Greek. Were
the kamboja also barbarians? Whatever the reaction to that, it is certain that there
was never any ancient connection between the kamboja of northwestern India and the
kambuja/Kampuchea of Cambodia, although in later writing, both Southeast Asian and
European, confusion of the two concepts occurred.
At some time in the Angkor period, probably under the influence of Sanskrit literature,
some classical Indian toponyms were adopted in Southeast Asia, and thus we can see
in a few Sanskrit inscriptions from Angkor and Champa that the name yavana was used
for the territory of what was then Vietnam, today northernmost Vietnam. This may
have been due to an adaptation of Indian semi-mythical geography according to which
the yavana were distant frontier people, as the Vietnamese were for the Cham and
In northern Thailand the etymological situation was similar, but different, with
the Indian element coming via Buddhism and Pali, in which the Indian version of Ionian
was yonaka, identified explicitly in northern Thai literature as yuon, although there,
as noted above, yuon and yonaka did not mean Vietnam, but the northern Thai. In that
ancient Indian tradition the yonaka were also close neighbors of the kamboja, and
in some old literature of Buddhist Burma and Thailand the entire structure was adopted,
with kamboja applied to central Burma or central Thailand, depending on the orientation
of the writer, with yonaka to the north. It was in this situation that the terms
kamboja and kambuja came to be confused.
As for the Buddhist Institute Dictionary, popularly called the dictionary of the
Venerable Chuon Nath, it defines yuon simply as inhabitants of Vietnam, says nothing
about yavana, but includes yona, or yonaka, in the classical Indian sense, as a name
for 'Western Laos', which is what the French called northern Thailand, and also notes
that the original yonaka country was Greece. No connection is made in that context
between yonaka and yuon as a name for Vietnamese, nor is 'barbarian' given as the
meaning of any of these terms. This dictionary also correctly distinguishes the kamboja
of ancient India from kambuja.
'Barbarian' creeps in in the Cambodian-English Dictionary of Robert Headley, which
is a translation of the Chuon Nath dictionary with a few additions. Among those we
see in the entry on yuon, p787, the same ethnic definitions as given by Chuon Nath
plus, in parentheses, "(poss. rel. to S. yavana, 'foreigner, barbarian')".
Headley, working in a reactionary American environment (The Catholic University of
America, Washington DC) in the 1970s, apparently decided to adopt a late and minor
usage of yavana to favor the Cambodian chauvinist usage of yuon. Headley also, in
contrast to Chuon Nath, erroneously assimilates kamboja to kambuja, and omits all
reference to yona/yonaka.
A careful look at Monier-Williams, however, suggests that this derogatory use of
yavana in India came about after the Indians had contact with modern Europeans. Moreover,
among scholars now yuon < yavana is considered only one possible derivation, but
there is not space here for a full discussion.
In the time of Chuon Nath, none of these terms was derogatory. Yuon began to take
on such a meaning in some of the speeches of high-ranking personalities in the late
1960s, increasingly with the overtly racist rhetoric of Lon Nol during his pogroms
against Vietnamese and the 1970-75 war, and solidified in that sense during 'Khmer
Rouge' Democratic Kampuchea. Such silliness as, "it is a word created by the
CPP when the Vietnamese arrived in Cambodia in 1979" should be ignored.
Such changes of nuance in ethnic terms is seen in many languages. For instance, there
was a time when it was considered quite normal in the United States to say 'nigger'.
By the 1940s and 1950s (perhaps even earlier, but I am restricting my remarks on
this to times I can remember), that old word was generally recognized as demeaning,
and the politically correct term was 'negro', while 'black', which later became popular
as 'negro' went out of fashion, would have been considered rude. Now, judging from
the press, 'Afro-American' is the most acceptable designation for persons of that
Certainly anyone using 'nigger' now would intend it as a deliberate insult, and no
argument that it was once, in the distant past, in common use would be tolerated.
The same is true for yuon in Cambodia, whatever its neutral connotation in the past.
Although it would be an excess of political correctness to try to change the name
of a soup, and probably some Cambodians in distant rural areas do not even know of
the yuon-Vietnamese controversy, in politically sophisticated circles it has become
a derogatory designation, and those politicians and intellectuals who insist on using
it must be denounced as pandering to, even encouraging, ethnic prejudice, hatred,
- Michael Vickery - Phnom Penh