Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - What's in a Name? A Not So Neighborly Debate

What's in a Name? A Not So Neighborly Debate

What's in a Name? A Not So Neighborly Debate

Cambodia's age-old antipathy with Vietnam-and even the words used by Cambodians to

refer to their neighbors to the east-is increasingly emerging as a campaign issue.

UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi has publicly rebuffed Khmer faction leaders, particularly

the Party of Democratic Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge), for using the word "yuon"

in reference to Vietnamese people.

"The use of pejorative terms such as 'yuon,' especially by an organization aspiring

to the attributes of statehood, is unseemly and objectionable in public discourse,"

Akashi wrote in a letter to Khieu Samphan, president of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea

(PDK), on Aug. 31.

In official statements the State of Cambodia government uses the word "Vietnam"

to refer to both the country and its people.

"They don't use 'yuon' because they're friends with Vietnam," said a Cambodian

who works for a non-governmental organization in Phnom Penh.

But leaders of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) and Democratic Kampuchea

say the word "yuon" is not a racial slur, but comes from the Chinese word

Yun Nan-meaning "southern kingdom."

The Masters' Tea

Despite the fact that a 1978 Khmer Rouge document, the "Black Paper," defines

"yuon" as meaning "savage," Democratic Kampuchea spokesman Tep

Khunnal said recently that the group uses the word in the sense that it was defined

in a 1967 Khmer-language dictionary published by the Buddhist Institute.

"On page 955 of that dictionary, the word 'yuon' is defined as a nationality

or national of Tonkin, Annam, and of Cochinchina," Tep said. "The Cambodian

people know the people living in that area as yuon. [Democratic Kampuchea] uses the

word in that understanding, according to the definition in that dictionary, which

is well respected in Cambodia."

A official of a prominent Cambodian political party, who asked not to be named, also

asserted that "yuon" is not a derogatory word.

"If you want to know what what we really call Vietnamese to insult them,"

he said, "there are other words that we use."

"We call them A-sakaye dong, [coconut shell-the prefix 'A-' before a word gives

it a derogatory connotation], because Vietnamese float down the rivers into Cambodia,

hiding under the surface of the water by wearing a coconut on their head, in order

to invade and rob our people," he said.

"Or else we call them A-sratope jake, [banana bark]-which means the rag tag

people-they're so poor they wear clothes made of banana leaves. We also call them

yuon kratope [rags], referring to them doing the low jobs like mopping the floors."

Some Cambodians refer to red ants as sramaoij yuon (yuon ants), one Cambodian said,

"because they bother us."

Many Khmer refer to the story of the "Masters' Tea"-which they retell as

historical fact-when Vietnamese invaders purportedly used the heads of Cambodians

to perch their tea kettles on.

Cambodians also have a saying: "Khmae men jaul kabuen; Yuon men jaol put."

(Cambodians never abandon rules; "Yuon" never abandon trickery).

"That means that the Vietnamese keep a bad attitude in their mind, now and in

the past," explained a Cambodian. "Even if at the moment they are good,

they still have bad motives in their minds. Like when they came and stayed in Cambodia

in the past, and later said it's part of Vietnam. The saying warns us about the Vietnamese,

that this might happen again, as in the past."

Vietnamese women are also not to be trusted, according to many Cambodians. "They

marry our leaders, and then start trying to control them, according to the interests

of Vietnam," said a schoolteacher, who listed off the names of officials in

the Hun Sen government that he said had Vietnamese wives.

Sordid Selling of Girls

The "Black Paper" describes the "sordid selling of Vietnamese girls"

in the "manoeuvres and methods used by the Vietnamese to annex and swallow Kampuchea's

territory in the past."

According to many Cambodians' telling of history, in the 17th century Cambodian King

Cheychetha II-who had previously requested Vietnam's support against Thai encroachment

in Cambodia-married a Vietnamese princess.

In return, the Cambodian king allowed Vietnam to set up trade in 1623 in the city

of Prey Nokor-which is now known as Ho Chi Minh City-but was then part of Cambodia.

"At the intervention of his [Vietnamese] wife, Cheychetha II agreed," the

Khmer Rouge state in the Black Paper. "Tens of thousands of Vietnamese nationals

then came and settled themselves in that region. . .They expelled the Khmer people

living there and forced them to move to the more remote regions."

In a recent article in the KPNLF Bulletin, Gen. Thach Reng gives an accounting of

"Historical Events Concerning the Yuon-Khmer Crisis."

In 1645 and again in 1653, the Khmer king attempted to claim Prey Nokor back, according

to Thach. "The Yuons refused to leave the place," Thach wrote, "and

in 1748 the entire Khmer land fell under Yuon control."

Explaining the present-day animosity between Vietnamese and Khmers, Veng Sereyvuth,

foreign affairs advisor to FUNCINPEC, the party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, said:

"It's history. We just cannot mix with these people. The Vietnamese are warmongers."

Cambodians continue to refer to the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam-where

ethnic Khmers still live-as Kampuchea Krom (lower Cambodia).

Border disputes in the 1970s between Cambodia and Vietnam by both Lon Nol and Pol

Pot were in part an effort to retake Kampuchea Krom.

"We had to kill the Vietnamese [in the 1970s] because otherwise we wouldn't

be here today," said a Cambodian who formerly worked for the SOC government.

"Many were armed because the [Vietnam] war was going on at the time.

"Today, many people think the Vietnamese here receive grants from their government,

and guns too," he added. "We think many of them are armed."

Charles Twining, the U.S. envoy in Phnom Penh, has been widely quoted as saying his

worst nightmare is to see Vietnamese bodies floating down the Mekong River again-referring

to thousands of Vietnamese who were killed and had their bodies dumped in the river

during the Lon Nol period.

Violence against ethnic Vietnamese has flared up again in recent months, with the

kidnapping of eight Vietnamese in Kompong Thom in early October, the killing of Vietnamese

fishermen in Koh Kong and Kompong Chhnang in October and April respectively, and

the massacre of eight Vietnamese-including two children-in Kampot on July 21.

Soldiers in Disguise?

At least three Cambodian political parties have charged that Vietnamese troops remain

in Cambodia-disguised as civilians or Phnom Penh army troops-and that Vietnam is

pursuing a deliberate policy of sending Vietnamese settlers to Cambodia to influence

the elections.

Son Sann, president of the BLDP, has called for all Vietnamese in Cambodia to be

expelled, charging that if Vietnamese men are allowed to marry Cambodian women, the

Khmer race will die out by the year 2042.

"This is not a question of racism and chauvinism, but of the survival of our

nation as a Khmer nation," Son Sann said.

The Khmer Rouge have insisted they will not join the peace process until Vietnamese

troops and settlers are removed from Cambodia.

"Apart from the Vietnamese forces, there are Vietnamese settlers who were sent

to Cambodia in a systematic and planned manner in the past more than 13 years in

the framework of Vietnam's 'Vietnamization' policy," Democratic Kampuchea President

Khieu Samphan stated in a letter to UNTAC chief Akashi on Sept. 23.

"These Vietnamese settlers. . . have expropriated rich lands, rice fields, lakes,

rivers, etc. of the Cambodian people, who have been forced to abandon their houses

and villages," Khieu Samphan said. "By their true nature, they are part

and parcel of the Vietnamese occupying forces."

Some Cambodian political parties have also charged that the State of Cambodia has

issued identity cards to Vietnamese nationals, in an effort to sway the upcoming

elections in their favor.

To resolve these issues, as well as charges that Vietnam has further encroached into

Cambodian territory over the last 13 years, UNTAC has proposed to set up technical

advisory committees on foreign residents in Cambodia and its territorial boundaries.

But one UNTAC administrator, who asked not to be named, says the U.N. is skirting

the Vietnamese issue, thus strengthening the Khmer Rouge's call for radical solutions.

UNTAC should not allow former members of the Vietnamese armed forces to resettle

in Cambodia during the transitional period before elections, she said.

"There's no way we can tolerate a racial crusade against Vietnamese people,"

she said. "At the same time there are concerns about certain groups of Vietnamese

here-those with weapons, and former soldiers who have returned to do business or

work as diplomats.

"If UNTAC with all its resources can't [screen former Vietnamese military],"

she added, "what's to prevent the Khmer Rouge from doing it their way-rounding

everyone up or killing some to scare off others?"

The Vietnamese government has repeatedly said it withdrew all troops in September,

1989. In addition, U.N. officials say the Cambodian factions have yet to prove the

existence of Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia, nor have they been detected by mobile

U.N. investigative teams or at border checkpoints.


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