With the obvious innocence of children everywhere, these students face
life in a hostile society.
Vietnamese in Cambodia: their story
In the third part of our series exploring Cambodia's relationship with Vietnam
Chea Sotheacheathlooks at efforts by ethnic Vietnamese to educate their children
in order that they might become more fully integrated and successful members of society.
ON Ber has a dispassionate and hard-nosed assessment of Vietnamese children who grew
up in Cambodia between 1980 and 1998: he says most have become gangsters or prostitutes.
Ber, also known as Penh Sovan, is the 53-year-old leader of the ethnic Vietnamese
community at Chba Ampov. He said the descent into a life of crime was not a planned
or conscious move but was, instead, the result of ignorance and a lack of education.
Often unwelcome or actively discouraged from attending state schools, the ethnic
Vietnamese community is now taking matters into their own hands and trying to educate
their children themselves.
Ber said it is time to start again with the current generation who are "innocent"
and should not be judged on the reputation of their forebears.
He said Vietnamese children want to go to Cambodian schools but have been prevented
from doing so because of ill-treatment at the hands of their Cambodian schoolmates.
"The Vietnamese children need to study Cambodian language because they are living
in Cambodia," he said.
Last year, Ber said, some of the Vietnamese children were forced to quit their study
at Chba Ampov primary schools because they "could not endure the bad treatment
by their class-mates.
"Cambodian kids sometimes like to play with Vietnamese children but they call
them con yuon (children of the Vietnamese)."
"They look like they get along with each other well. But Vietnamese kids were
often beaten up."
Ber said he had many times seen Vietnamese children walking home from school crying
with their clothes dirty. When questioned, they usually said they had been beaten
up by their classmates.
The children's parents often decided to remove their children from school rather
than have them left at risk of further abuse.
A Cambodian teacher who asked not to be named said the problems with Vietnamese children
often stemmed from their lack of knowledge of Khmer language and culture.
She said their way of speaking and behaving was often interpreted as rudeness.
She gave the examples of Vietnamese students not lowering their heads when they passed
teachers or old people.
"The Vietnamese kids shake their head or use the word 'Er' when agreeing with
people they are speaking to even if the person is elderly. That behavior is bad.
Cambodian students do not like it. It is very rude," the teacher said.
"The manners of Cambodian students are soft and polite. They bend down in respect
when they pass the old people and use the words ja or ba to agree with people."
However, she said she sympathized with the Vietnamese children who she believed were
too young to master two cultures and two languages and constantly adjust between
"I know their problem. It is hard for the young children to use two things [two
cultures, two languages] at one time. They get confused," the teacher said.
"The parents of the Vietnamese children should teach their children Cambodian
culture and language or let them practice Cambodian lifestyle at home to help their
children to have a good relationship with Cambodian society."
Vietnamese parents spoken to by the Post agreed that it was essential that their
children were conversant with Khmer language and culture, but if they were excluded
from the mainstream school system they had few options other than to go it alone
and build their own schools.
The Post visited some of these Vietnamese schools. One of the most popular, on the
corner of streets 250 and 105, was built in 1994 supported by the Vietnamese Association
of Phnom Penh.
The eight-classroom school currently has 320 students, and teaches children up to
Vietnamese Association President Nguyen Ngoc Sanh said the curriculum followed Vietnam's
Ministry of Education program except for lessons in Khmer language, which used the
curriculum of the Cambodian education ministry.
He said the students spent five hours a week studying Khmer language and culture.
Hout Chan Sivong, 35, a teacher of Cambodian language, said her students worked hard
at their language lessons because they saw it as essential for future business or
work prospects in the region.
She said it was not just young people who were working on their Khmer language lessons.
She said a lot of older Vietnamese people asked her to help them improve their Khmer
language - often for business reasons.
However, there was still some resistance to putting a lot of effort into mastering
the Khmer language.
One of Sivong's students, Nguyen Thi Baovy, 15, said she liked living in Cambodia
and would be content to live here for the rest of her life, but she was under parental
pressure to concentrate on Vietnamese language with a view to working in Vietnam.
Sanh said the major problem with the schooling was the difficulty in getting funding.
He said most of the Vietnamese were poor and could not afford $8 a month for their
children to go to school. He said another problem was that the Vietnamese community
was not concentrated in any one area so it was difficult to find a site for a school
that pleased everyone.
Sanh said about 60 students were exempted from paying fees because of financial hardship.
But, he added, there were still many children who were missing out on an education,
particularly those surviving as plastic bag or junk collectors.
The association's central Phnom Penh school, with its $8 monthly fees, is at the
top end of the market so many parents look to cheaper alternatives.
One option is provided by Nguyen Van Phuoc, 60, a Vietnamese teacher at a private
school at Chba Ampov.
Phuoc charges his students 200 riel for one 2-hour class which has been very popular.
He estimated about 6,000 children had been under his tutelage over the past 10 years.
He said he had a close relationship with the Vietnamese Association in Phnom Penh
and the education of his class was supported by the association.
Phuoc believed he had done a good job for his Vietnamese children by teaching them
their national Vietnamese language.
"Yes, Cambodian language is important, but their national language is also important.
They must know their native language too," Phuoc said through an interpreter.
Currently he has 70 students, including his 14-year-old daughter Kim Hong who is
studying five languages.
She said she had had no problems with Cambodian classmates at her Chba Ampov primary
school and had made a lot of new friends through her attendance at Chinese and English
Some parents look to a third option and teach their children themselves.
Nguyen Thihak Tong, 45, is teaching Vietnamese language to her children at home every
night because her house is far away from school. She also makes some extra money
by teaching neighbors' children.
She said most of the Vietnamese children in the area did not have the chance to go
to school, some because they were helping their parents earn money and others who
could not even afford the 200 riel she charged for her class.
She said she tried to help, but was limited in what she could do.
"I can teach them to read and write only. I cannot give them more than that
because I am also busy," she said.
But even though the Vietnamese schools or home schooling provided a measure of protection
for the students there were still problems caused by racism and bigotry
The central Phnom Penh school director, Taing Va, complained that his school lessons
were often interrupted when Cambodian politicians stirred up public feelings against
He said his school had had to close down for a month at a time when feelings ran
high. He said often the students and their families fled to Vietnam until tempers
cooled. If the situation was not too serious they remained in Cambodia, but took
"The parents of the students do not allow their children to go out when they
think the security situation is not good. They are afraid their children will be
harmed," Va said.