Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Listening to the ‘other’: project tracks Khmer-ethnic Vietnamese relations on the ground

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.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Temi tourism project approved by the CDC

    The $500.4 million Tourism, Ecological, Marine and International (Temi) tourism project has been approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), according to a notice on its Facebook page on Monday. The project is part of Chinese-owned Union City Development Group Co Ltd’s (

  • Rainsy will return at ‘favourable time’

    Opposition figure Sam Rainsy on Saturday suggested he would not return to Cambodia as he had previously promised, saying that like liberators King Father Norodom Sihanouk and Charles de Gaulle, he would only do so at a “favourable time”. “I will go back to Cambodia

  • US Embassy urged to stop ‘disrespecting sovereignty’

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation called on the US Embassy in Phnom Penh on Saturday to respect the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations after it called former opposition leader Kem Sokha “an innocent man” – a move deemed to be “disrespecting Cambodia’s

  • NagaWorld casino sees net profit of more than $390M last year

    Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld casino posted a 53 per cent net profit increase last year at $390.6 million, a sum which is almost equal to the combined net profit of all Cambodian commercial banks in 2017. NagaWorld’s parent company, NagaCorp Ltd, is listed on the Hong Kong