Vietnamese in Cambodia: their story
Substantial numbers of Cambodia's Vietnamese residents live on the water, allowing them to avoid the costs and legal problems associated with purchasing or renting property on dry land. Like their counterparts on terra firma, these floating communities are sometimes subject to the wrath of the authorities, or other Khmer neighbors. The recent campaign by the Phnom Penh government to "relocate" floating residents from the capital city caused much distress.
In the second part of our series on the Vietnamese in Cambodia Chea Sotheacheath
looks at ordinary Vietnamese living in Cambodia today - their lives and views in
a sometimes hostile Kingdom.
Every day, Cambodia's more than 100,000 Vietnamese residents go to work across the
Kingdom, many of them working in skilled or semi-skilled areas such as construction
Other occupations with a significant Vietnamese presence include fishing and prostitution.
Estimates of the number of Vietnamese people living and working in Cambodia are many
and varied, ranging from the hundreds of thousands up to the millions.
Results from the 1998 census could give an accurate indication of the number of people
living in Cambodia who count Vietnamese as their first language but that data has
not been compiled.
Other sources are often precise but not necessarily accurate. Prok Saroeun, Chief
of Immigration Police at the Ministry of Interior, said that during the last nine
months of 1999, 103,961 ethnic Vietnamese inhabited 16 of Cambodia's 24 provinces
(numbers for the other eight provinces were not yet available).
This figure was produced by the Ministry of the Interior as part of its 1999 campaign
to monitor foreigners throughout the country. The campaign was temporarily halted
at the end of December because of the millennium holiday, he said.
In her chapter on Vietnamese in Cambodia in the book Interdisciplinary Research on
Ethnic Groups in Cambodia, Christine Leonard identified three different categories
of Vietnamese residents.
The first group consists of Cambodian-born Vietnamese, whose parents and grandparents
were also born here. They speak and sometimes read and write Khmer fluently. They
see Cambodia as their motherland and feel well integrated into Khmer society.
The second category consists of Vietnamese who came to Cambodia between 1979 and
1989. They came with relatives and friends who returned to Cambodia after the Pol
Pot regime and came to work for the government (especially as soldiers) or just tried
their luck to earn some money in Cambodia. This category of Vietnamese can usually
speak some Khmer, although not fluently. Some married Cambodians and settled in Khmer
The last group are those who arrived recently. They were drawn to Cambodia by the
lure of jobs following the economic boom in Cambodia in the 1990s. They came to earn
money and planned to go back to Vietnam as soon as they thought they had earned enough.
Most of them either do not speak Khmer at all, or speak only very basic Khmer. However,
many of the Vietnamese now resident in Cambodia who were spoken to by the Post were
reticent about saying exactly when they arrived - most claim to have been in the
country for at least 10 years.
Tranh Son is one of the thousands of Vietnamese workers who came to Cambodia after
the fall of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent Vietnamese occupation.
He said he liked to work in Cambodia because it was easy to earn money and if it
were possible, he would like to live here for the rest of his life.
His family in Vietnam is poor. His father died and his family has little land so
the rice production was not enough to feed everyone.
Son, a carpenter working in a furniture shop, said he has no problems with his Cambodian
co-workers, only with the police.
"Cambodian people like me. They are good. They often invite me to have a drink
or ask me to attend ceremonies they celebrate at home," Son said.
However, Son was sometimes beaten by police when he traveled. He said he had been
beaten three times since moving to Cambodia in 1980.
Once he was stopped on the way to work and asked to pay a police officer some money.
"Police stopped me and asked for 3000 Riel. I was beaten when I did not have
money to pay him. He shouted at me and beat me on my neck and said how could I make
The assault happened before the 1998 election day near Chamkamorn Palace.
Police often halted him and asked for passport, ID and driving license. When he presented
all the things the police asked for he was asked to give the police some money, Son
"Vietnamese people were afraid to go out during the months before election day."
Son said he learned to make furniture from a Vietnamese friend who worked at a furniture
shop near Boeung Trabek school when he first arrived in Cambodia. He said he learned
quickly and went to work for other shops. Son now earns $4 a day and is able to support
his old mother, two sisters and brother in Vietnam.
He has worked hard to save money to run his own business.
Sok Samnang, 45, a Vietnamese who has lived in Cambodia since the post-colonial Sangkum
Reastr Niyum regime, said Cambodian people in his Chroy Changva village liked him.
"Khmer people in my village are dealing well with my family. They are not racist."
However, he said a group of Khmer once called him "Yuon" after hearing
him speak Vietnamese with some fisherman friends.
"In Cambodia people think you are bad when they hear you are speaking Vietnamese.
But they think you are good if they hear you speak Barang and Anglais [French and
"When [Cambodians] get angry with me they call me a Youn. I don't mind when
someone calls me Yuon, but don't fight me otherwise I will fight back," Samnang
Samnang, like most Cambodian Vietnamese, has both Khmer and Vietnamese names. His
Vietnamese given name is Bai. Khmer sometimes call him Ta Bai, meaning "the
He said he was born in Kampong Chhnang of a Cambodian father and a Vietnamese mother.
He speaks Khmer fluently, but he still has his Vietnamese accent.
Now the owner of Bopha Angkor Tours near Phsar Chas market, Samnang said during the
Pol Pot years he helped collect Vietnamese and send them back to Vietnam. He said
he was not sent back because the Khmer Rouge believed he was Cambodian.
He said Vietnamese people liked to live in Cambodia because it was rich in natural
"In Cambodia parents can easily feed their children if they just have a net
to fish unlike in Vietnam," he said.
He said Vietnamese who moved to Cambodia were mainly poor. Most of them did not have
a house or land in Vietnam. They liked to live on the river because they did not
need to buy land. They were not charged for construction and they could use water
for free. Cambodian people did not like to live on the river, Samnang added.
Pham Uyen, 26, who runs a restaurant on Street No. 15, believes her family will probably
have to leave Cambodia eventually because of government plans to control foreigners
through the new ID card system.
"We try to save money as much as possible so when we go back to Vietnam we have
some capital to continue the business," she said.
Pham Uyen, whose Khmer name is Kim Leng, rented a flat near Phsar Kandal for $220
to sell Vietnamese food and coffee to her compatriots in the area. Asked about the
discrimination against Vietnamese, she suggested Cambodians should not think all
the Vietnamese were bad as some Cambodian people were bad too.
"We are good people. We move to Cambodia to do business. We do not come and
burn Cambodian houses."
Uyen lived in Sihanoukville before she moved to Phnom Penh. She wanted to exchange
her old Cambodian ID for a new one, but police refused.
Li Kim Moi,
39, who sells cheap handmade sandals at Phsar Tauch, was also trying to save up in
case she had to return to Vietnam due to tightening immigration laws.
Li lives in Chba Ampov. A fire destroyed her house last year, but she is happy to
continue living in Cambodia.
"In Cambodia I definitely expect that I will get some money if I go out and
earn money," she said.
Forty-year-old Srey Sroh (a pseudonym), who did not want her real name used, says
she is Cambodian, but Cambodian people think she is Vietnamese.
She said her father was a Khmer Issarak living in Kampot province. He was sent to
Hanoi for a communist training course during the 1950s. There he married a Vietnamese
woman. Sroh was born later in south Vietnam. Her family were considered to be Cambodian
- specifically Khomae Do meaning "Khmer Rouge people."
Sroh said she lived in a Khmer camp in Hanoi and went to a Khmer school because she
In 1970 her father was sent to fight in Cambodia, but disappeared.
In 1978 Sroh was sent to south Vietnam for journalism training before being sent
to work at the Cambodian information ministry following the Vietnamese army's takeover.
In the meantime she had married a Vietnamese soldier.
She said in Cambodia she was considered to be a Vietnamese.
"Everybody thinks that I am 'Yuon.' They call the house I stay in 'Yuon's house.'"
She has given birth to three daughters in Cambodia, all with Khmer names, aged 19,
17 and 15.
Sroh sent her daughters to a Khmer school, but they faced discrimination because
of their family. So she sent the three girls to study in Hanoi and changed their
names to Vietnamese.
She sent the first of her daughters to a Cambodian school, but Cambodian students
called her "Kon Yuon" meaning "child of Vietnamese."
This discrimination and the fact that Cambodian education was poor led her to send
her daughter back to Hanoi for schooling.
However, at the Vietnamese school the three daughters were called "con mien"
meaning "Khmer children."
"When I was at Vietnamese class I was called 'con Khomae Do', the child of Khmer
Rouge. Then, my children were called 'con mien.' When we are in Cambodia people call
us 'Yuon,'" Sroh said.
The girls are now back in Cambodia and live with Sroh and her second husband, a Khmer
who works in a government ministry.
Difficulties continue for her daughters, though. They still look Vietnamese and whenever
they go out people look at them and think they are "Yuon", Sroh said.
The three daughters were now being taught Khmer by their parents and Sroh was urging
them to give up Vietnamese culture and take up a Cambodian lifestyle. Her daughters
wanted to go to Khmer school, but were afraid they would be called "Yuon"
Sroh now has a new idea. She wants to send her daughters to Chinese classes. The
situation would then be easier for her daughters because the color of their skin
is similar to that of Chinese people.
"I hope we will get on well with the Khmer community by choosing this way,"
But while at a local level some Vietnamese have integrated successfully there is
a wider perception that there is something predatory about the migration.
Opposition MP Son Chhay said he believed the Vietnamese migration to Cambodia was
part of a larger plan to invade and take over the country.
The increasing number of Vietnamese often led to Cambodians becoming concerned about
Both the Lon Nol and Pol Pot governments launched bloody campaigns to remove the
Chhay said: "The country was clean. There were no more Yuon in Cambodia. Why
does Cambodia [now] have plenty of Yuon and some people say they are legal?"
Cambodia could no longer deal with illegal Vietnamese using the harsh methods of
the past, but needed to use methods adopted by the international community.
Chhay suggested Vietnamese "old and new" had to be scrutinized on a "case
by case" basis. He wanted a Special Committee to be created by the government
with the support of the international community and Vietnamese government.
Then, when illegal Vietnamese were found in Cambodia they could be sent back to Vietnam
just as the British and German governments had deported illegal Vietnamese in the
Chhay said Vietnam, as one of the 19 signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords,
had to stop its citizens violating the sovereignty and integrity of Cambodia.
He explained that in the past Vietnamese in Cambodia had been massacred because they
had not respected the country's integrity and sovereignty.
Chhay was, however, not hopeful of getting the cooperation of the Vietnamese government.
"So far, I note that the Vietnam government has rarely allowed its citizens
to go back and live in their country when they have been forced to leave other countries."
Thach Setha, a Sam Rainsy Party senator, put the number of Vietnamese in Cambodia
at "not less than one million."
He insisted the government must repatriate illegal Vietnamese and blamed the Vietnamese
for "creating insecurity in the Khmer society" - prostitution, crime, polluting
Cambodian rivers, destroying the nation's fish, and stealing jobs from Cambodians.
He called the Vietnamese in Cambodia "anarchic" and "so aggressive."
Vietnamese had not abided by Cambodian law and culture. He also criticized Cambodian
authorities for allowing Vietnamese to play karaoke in their own language in public
"Yuon living in Cambodia are anarchic and bad. They have not learned Khmer language.
They have not respected Khmer culture. They still use their native language even
in public," Setha continued.
However one Vietnamese worker had an equally harsh view of Cambodians despite being
married to a local woman.
"I tell you the truth - even if my children are half Cambodian, I have to say
it - Cambodians are lazy," he said.
"They are slow to learn and are only interested in power and status. Give them
a gun and a few bodyguards and they think they're a general or a commander. They
learn a few English phrases and they're intellectuals."
But Setha is unmoved by arguments that Vietnamese fill a role Cambodians cannot or
are unwilling to fulfill themselves. He wants them sent back.
Illegal Vietnamese in Cambodia should be kept in camps under the UNHCR like Cambodian
refugees were in Thailand in 1980-1993, he suggested.
"Cambodian war refugees were strictly controlled by the Thai government. Thai
army and police had marked the border for us.
"Unlike the Vietnamese in Cambodia, some Cambodian refugees were beaten or jailed
when they went out of the camp illegally," Setha said.
Cambodia should submit the illegal Vietnamese immigration issue and the two countries'
on-going border dispute to ASEAN to solve since both countries were members, he suggested.
The Cambodian Students
Movement for Democracy, a small group of university students, last month called for
illegal Vietnamese in Cambodia to be sent home and also for the cancellation of the
border treaties made by the two countries in 1982-83 and 1985.
The protesters claimed both Cambodia's land and sea territory had shrunk after the
treaties, which were initiated by Vietnam.
The students demanded that the government's chief border negotiator, Va Kim Hong,
step down, saying Hong was a "traitor."
One moto-dup driver who saw the rally outside the Council of Ministers said he was
fed up with the dispute between Cambodia and Vietnam. He said he had seen and heard
the same things in Cambodia under every regime.
Um Sam An, General Secretary of the students' movement, said demonstrations against
Vietnam had been taking place for a long time and had originally occurred in Kampuchea
Krom (in southern Vietnam) when Cambodia tried to stop Vietnamese moving onto Khmer
"The demonstrations against Yuon seem to be becoming the Cambodian culture now
because this kind of action has happened a century ago and it still keeps going on.
"The demonstration against Yuon will not end until the Hanoi Government gives
up its invasive ambitions on Cambodian land."
An called the process of invasion by Vietnam "the slowly eating silkworm."
Long Visalo, Secretary of State for the Ministry of the Interior, who is the Vietnam-Cambodia
border negotiator, said this particular dispute between the two countries should
end this year.
The next meeting was due to happen this month, with a final decision on the two countries'
border due to be made in October.