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,"
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.
" 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
"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.