​Politicians begin pondering the Vietnamese card | Phnom Penh Post

Politicians begin pondering the Vietnamese card


Publication date
27 February 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Matthew Grainger and Chea Sotheacheath

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CHNOK TROU, Kampong Chhang - It is a nervy, barely credulous sort of happiness, but

it seems genuine nevertheless. Here, in a floating village at the mouth of the Tonle

Sap and one of Cambodia's single biggest communities of ethnic Vietnamese, they whisper

about the prospect of surviving an election where nationalist fervor is not whipped

up against them.

"Many, many Vietnamese people are saying they are very happy that [Prince Norodom]

Ranariddh has gone, and that [Second Prime Minister] Hun Sen has power," says

Kwan, a 44-year-old fisherman.

"The people will be happy should Hun Sen keep power after the election. If another

party like Funcinpec wins, the people say that everybody will be forced back to Vietnam,"

he says.

It's an understandable reaction from a people - many of whom can trace their Khmer

birthright back generations - who fear a popular racial backlash that has been very

bloody in the past.

The "anti-Vietnamese card" - considered a racist blight by many - served

Funcinpec and the BLDP well at the 1993 polls.

The royalists won power by playing up their blue-blood lineage and, perhaps as decisively,

tapping into popularly-held fears about Cambodia's eastern neighbor.

"In 1993 I sold Funcinpec quite clearly," former Foreign Minister Prince

Norodom Sirivudh told the Post back in Oct 1995. "I said we were founded by

the King [and] that we were anti-Vietnamese. People gave money, sold their cows,

their homes. Of course we won."

Perhaps the worst, and most public, example of racism during the UNTAC election was

the massacre of 33 settlers by Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Chong Kneas village on the

Tonle Sap in March 1993.

Funcinpec's first reaction was that it was a "sensitive issue", one that

"we will not condemn or approve". The KPLNF - later the BLDP - said that

while it condemned "any acts of violence against humanity" it "...urged

Vietnam to call upon her citizens currently living illegally in Cambodia to return

to their homeland".

The CPP, indebted to Vietnam's army and fraternally faithful to Hanoi, tried dampening

down such popular rhetoric with a tub-thumping campaign of its own as the party that

broke the "bey ch'nam, pram-bey khe, moiphey t'ngey" (3-year, 8-month,

20-day) rule of Pol Pot.

CPP (then the State of Cambodia (SOC)) spokesman Khieu Kan-harith said at the time:

"Attacking, massacring and denouncing the Vietnamese is all aimed at decreasing

the credibility and prestige of the SOC."

The most important change today for the 900-odd Vietnamese families of Chnok Trou,

and many more communities elsewhere in the Kingdom, is that the political demise

of Funcinpec and the BLDP and the military weakening of the Khmer Rouge has created

a vacuum among those who would exploit anti-Vietnamese chauvinism.

During this time local newspapers were littered with anti-Vietnamese letters and

comment, and frequent stories of intimidation and killing of Vietnamese settlers.

That feeling among many Khmers hasn't just evaporated: it's still there to be exploited

for political gain. What Kwan and other settlers hope is that, for their own safety,

local fear and loathing against them will remain untapped.

"[1993] was a bad time," says Kwan's older brother Leung. "Unknown

gunmen robbed our boats and fired rifles into our village, saying 'go back to Vietnam'.

We were chased back to Vietnam."

"We depend on the CPP. That's why we remain here. If there is no patron, someone

behind us, we can't stay here," he says.

TODAY, Kanharith - now the Secretary of State for Information - acknowledges that

the CPP "knows well" that nationalism may again be used as a main campaign

platform by some parties.

However, he says he is relaxed about this affecting his own party's performance at

the polls. He contents himself by saying that the CPP will "implement the immigration

law and settle any differences with neighboring countries by peaceable means".

Kanharith says that Sam Rainsy's KNP may be tempted to play an anti-Vietnamese card

"but the people will be reluctant [to listen]". He smiles: "Son Sann

may play this same card also. We will know when he starts his radio.

"While it is good to show some degree of nationalism... to be racist [is different].

This will be decided by the international community. Sam Rainsy may want to get a

lot of support, but also he must refrain from being racist...

"Before [in 1993] there was a perceived Vietnamese influence in Phnom Penh.

But now Vietnam doesn't have that influence... People don't see any [link] now"

between the CPP and Hanoi, Kanharith says.

BLDP leader Son Soubert disagrees: "The CPP is still aligned with Hanoi. [The

Vietnamese] won't be an issue with them... There are still two lines of commonality,

to the government and to the party. There is a special relationship [between Hanoi

and the CPP] on the party level."

"It's not a racial question, it's one of legality," Soubert says.

Quoting anecdotal "evidence" of Vietnamese people illegally moving into

Cambodia "even down the main national roads now", Soubert says that "tackling

the problem of illegal immigrants, from Vietnam and China, should be a general election


Rainsy, for his part, says he has no plans to exploit local suspicion against the

Vietnamese, though he acknowledges it would be easy and politically profitable to

do so.

"We have to recognize this fact, whether we want to or not," Rainsy says.

"But the KNP doesn't want to use this issue... We don't need to. We have many

other issues much stronger," he says.

"People are already fed up with this regime - the corruption, the poverty, deforestation,

human rights abuses, a Communist system that operates on a mafia style.

"Only those parties that have poor arguments will need [the anti-Vietnamese

issue]. The Khmer Rouge will use it.

"I will lose votes to those who would exploit this issue... I know it's to my

detriment. But that's OK," he says, "I have enough to campaign on."

The bit parties that have splintered from Funcinpec seem somewhat caught, and in

their lower-tier membership perhaps even a bit confused: their patronage is to the

CPP, yet their history is anti-Vietnamese.

Nguon Soeur's KCP "has to take care of the Vietnamese living in Cambodia on

behalf of humanitarian morals", says its leader, a former Funcinpec and KNP

official. "But I cannot accept any Vietnamese or other foreigners who are living

in Cambodia playing politics for the benefit of their own country."

"I won't allow any foreigners to live illegally in Cambodia."

Soeur, acknowledging his CPP "friends" and the "understanding"

they shared on the Vietnamese issue, concedes that his party members in the provinces

still had "obstacles and problems".

Soeur says: "We can accept yuon living in our country... but we do not allow

them doing any crazy thing.

"We will solve this problem when we have power. We will not send [Vietnamese

settlers] back by pushing them on board trucks. We will examine them one by one carefully

and properly, following the immigration law, before sending them back to their country."

When asked how Vietnamese settlers can protect themselves during this campaign, Seour's

advice to his "brothers" is "to keep quiet and shut up, even if they

are abused by someone during the election."

"We will solve their problem after the election in a fair way."

First Prime Minister Ung Huot, who himself defected from Funcinpec, says there are

"two kinds of Vietnamese in Cambodia - those who can trace back birthrights

and ancestry in Cambodia, who have a right to vote; and those who have moved here

illegally and have no right to vote..."

Huot's Populism party "will let our people know the issue" of Vietnamese

settlers in its campaigning. "We will send back any illegal immigrant from Cambodia,

but we will carefully check those who are legal and those who are not," Huot


Presently the most outspoken politician - perhaps unsurprising, given his 10-year

imprisonment in Vietnam from 1982, and fall from grace within the former PRK party

- is Pen Sovann.

In unsettling echoes of 1993, Sovann says there are 1 million Vietnamese in Cambodia,

that they're over-fishing the Tonle Sap and exploiting other resources, and that

many have been given Khmer ID and CPP cards and will vote for Hun Sen. "The

Khmer people should be careful and struggle... or Cambodia will be like Palestine

under the rule of Israel," Sovann says.

While the thorny question of exactly how many ethnic Vietnamese are living in Cambodia

may be at least in part answered from the upcoming census, Sovann's allegation of

"illegal" Vietnamese franchise is a laughable one among the Chnok Trou


"We cannot vote," says one group of settlers, "we don't want to vote!"

However, another man says: "Look, we may be a bit disappointed [about not being

able to vote]. We've been here for generations. But what can we do?"

Their main gripes now in life are about the increasing incidence and rising cost

of various taxes that are slapped on their businesses. But at least no-one is killing

them, they say.

"We just want to live in peace, and make our business here," says another


The settlers of Chnok Trou seem content to count their blessings that, for now at

least, the political spotlight remains at best only dimly focused at them.

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