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Listening to the ‘other’: project tracks Khmer-ethnic Vietnamese relations on the ground

Ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia and whose families have lived in the Kingdom for generations talk about discrimination and identity at their market stalls in Phnom Penh in 2013.
Ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia and whose families have lived in the Kingdom for generations talk about discrimination and identity at their market stalls in Phnom Penh in 2013. Pha Lina

Listening to the ‘other’: project tracks Khmer-ethnic Vietnamese relations on the ground

A culture of pervasive prejudice against Cambodian residents of Vietnamese descent coexists with one of relative communal harmony in mixed areas of the capital, a recent survey of Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese residents has found.

Published last week in the book Who’s Listening? Tackling hard issues with empathy, the findings are the result of conversations with Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese residents in three districts of Phnom Penh conducted earlier this year. It highlights both deep-seated discrimination against the Vietnamese – exacerbated by a simplistic historical and media narrative – as well as positive relationships in areas where the two groups have day-to-day interaction.

“Little has been done to talk about what’s going on with the dynamics on the ground,” said Suyheang Kry, co-director of the project and executive director of Women Peace Makers. “So that’s why we decided to firstly try to understand from both sides how they see each other.”

To get at this question, a team of “listeners” was assembled of ethnic Vietnamese, mixed-race and Khmer researchers. They went into the Sen Sok, Tuol Kork and Chbar Ampov areas of the capital to speak with Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese residents about their perceptions of one another.

While the findings varied depending on the area and speaker, certain themes emerged. Khmer respondents were especially likely to point out behavioural stereotypes, with many saying that ethnic Vietnamese are “loud”, “messy”, or “too tricky”.

Residents often expressed discomfort with the presence of ethnic Vietnamese. When asked to elaborate why, history was frequently cited – including a “highly symbolic”, and possibly apocryphal, incident from the 19th century in which a Vietnamese emperor allegedly took three Khmer men prisoner, buried them up to their necks and boiled a burning cauldron of tea balanced on top of their heads.

Such distant anecdotes were often portrayed as representative of modern concerns – like worry over Vietnamese allegedly encroaching on Cambodian territory, “illegal” immigration and perceived higher birth rates in ethnic Vietnamese families.

“I’m worried that if the number of Vietnamese keeps growing in our country, one day we’ll have a referendum . . . and the Vietnamese people’s voice will be heard over the Khmer,” one 40-year-old Khmer woman is quoted as saying.

Nonetheless, some common ground seemed to be found through commerce and proximity. Even while expressing broad concerns about ethnic Vietnamese as a group, respondents brought up positive relationships with their neighbours and people they either worked or traded with.

“The stuff we found on negative sentiment is something we all know, really,” Kry said. “But what is interesting that hasn’t been covered are the positive examples we found in the field – friendships, relationships and appreciation on both sides towards each other.”

Among ethnic Vietnamese respondents, these positive reactions were especially prevalent. They were more likely to say that they had good relations with Khmer neighbours – “like brothers and sisters”, one Niroth commune resident said.

They blamed tensions between the two communities on “social, not ethnic” problems – such as on drugs, alcohol and crime. When drinking, gambling – and even love – entered the equation, they saw the likelihood of conflict along ethnic lines rising.

For both groups, meanwhile, illegal immigration was a major concern, with ethnic Vietnamese residents asking for more clarity on documentation and citizenship. Even for ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia, documentation is often impossible to obtain, putting citizenship out of their grasp. Without identity cards, birth certificates, or family books, they are at the mercy of police who, according to respondents, sometimes demand bribes from undocumented residents.

The Ministry of Interior announced earlier this year that it will revoke “improperly” issued documents, belonging to some 70,000 residents, in the coming months.

“The long-term ethnic Vietnamese said they also have the same concerns about immigration issues and they really ask for the stakeholders to improve the law,” Kry said.

For many of the “listeners” themselves, participating in the project involved confronting deep anxiety about the topic, and often prejudice of their own. One ethnic Vietnamese participant dropped out because of family pressure, while another only admitted after spending time with the team that she had Vietnamese heritage.

During group sessions, some Khmer “listeners” confessed that they had gone into the project with their own negative feelings about ethnic Vietnamese, and even discomfort at hearing the Vietnamese language. One Khmer “listener”, 23-year-old Uy Soklin, said in her interviews in Chbar Ampov she could see that fear on both sides influenced community relations.

“I noticed that most Khmer people do not really hate the Vietnamese, but they seemed afraid to lose something to the Vietnamese, and expressed anger over the violent history between the two nations,” she said. “Most Vietnamese expressed concern about their business as they are prone to discrimination.”

While the results are currently only available in English, Kry said the next steps will try to reach local audiences, with the goal “getting people to ask, ‘Why?’”

“Conflict is a part of life,” she said. “It’s important for this book to remind people that violence, including prejudice and discrimination, is a choice.”

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