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'Out of 20 of my friends, 17 hate the Vietnamese'

The classroom in Phnom Penh where Cambodian and Vietnamese students met
The classroom in Phnom Penh where Cambodian and Vietnamese students met Eli Meixler

'Out of 20 of my friends, 17 hate the Vietnamese'

This summer, a student exchange program set out to build bridges

'Out of 20 of my friends, 17 people hate the Vietnamese,” says Tep Afril, a 22-year-old IT student at the University of Cambodia.

In the group of young people gathered around him, another admits to once believing that the Vietnamese had a “secret agenda”.

Many also mention the widespread belief that the Vietnamese who work in Cambodia are here to “invade”, as their military did in 1979, pushing out the Khmer Rouge and staying for 10 years.

Afril describes the perception – which he does not share – with a candour unusual for such a sensitive subject. “In Cambodia, we have a bad stereotype of Vietnamese people.”

His tolerant attitude is what Sarus Exchange Programme, which organised the bridge-building project between Cambodians and ethnic Vietnamese, is striving for.

In July, the program, run by international peace-building organisation Sarus, welcomed 10 Vietnamese students to Cambodia for the fourth year running.

The dialogue occurred in the wake of widespread anti-Vietnamese sentiment and even violence.

In February, 30 year-old Tran Van Chien, a Vietnamese-Cambodian man, was beaten to death by a Phnom Penh mob in a confrontation that one witness, using a term for Vietnamese seen by many as an epithet, described as “yuon . . . fighting Khmer”.

Last month, the government launched a census that many see as targeting the Vietnamese. At least a dozen have already been deported.

The exchange program, which organisers stress has no political agenda, has been conducted differently this year, said coordinator Heng Sokchannaroath, or Naroath.

For the past three years, Sarus staff have organised the events; this year, however, they brought the participants and interns into the decision-making process. After two weeks, 10 Cambodian students went back to Vietnam for the first time with them to work on service projects – including redecorating school classrooms – in poor villages.

The program attempts to combat prejudice by shaping the attitudes of the new generation, Naroath explained.

“Young students are the future leaders for the country, so they have a powerful voice,” she said in a coffee shop in Phnom Penh before this year’s exchange began. “They talk with their friends and share their experiences.”

The Vietnamese contingent spent two weeks in the country, working on community development projects in a Kandal province village that is home to many ethnic Vietnamese and Vietnamese immigrants. Their Cambodian counterparts joined them.

For many ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, life is a daily struggle to navigate a society that doesn’t accept them. Lack of citizenship means children can’t go to school. Their parents can’t buy land. Many families live on floating boat homes, where a lack of sanitation and heavy flooding during the rainy season bring disease.

“Many of them don’t have a birth certificate even if they were born in Cambodia; they don’t go to school; they’re not taken care of by the government; and even the public doesn’t pay much attention to them,” said Naroath, who hopes that Sarus will introduce a similar exchange program between Burmese and Bangladeshi people in the future.

Part of the tension stems from the recent history of occupation, Naroath explained. The Vietnamese presence from 1979 to 1989 still haunts the older generation, she said.

“They think Vietnamese people come to take over businesses. It’s because of history – they see it as an invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam,” she said.

Vietnamese exchange student Phantran Hong Tram
Vietnamese exchange student Phantran Hong Tram Eli Meixler

But the root of the ethnic tension reaches back much further, all the way to the 17th century, when the Vietnamese began to push into Khmer territories in the Mekong Delta. In the 19th century, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and even occupied Phnom Penh under Emperor Minh Mang, who believed that the Khmer people were backward, Joel Brinkley writes in Cambodia’s Curse.

Only when King Norodom signed a treaty with the French Empire was Cambodia free of Vietnamese control – though even under the French Protectorate, many labourers and civil servants were Vietnamese, stoking embittered feelings.

When the Vietnamese came in 1979, they kicked out the Khmer Rouge, a regime whose polices had killed nearly 1.7 million people. But they weren’t welcomed as liberators for long.

“During this period, Vietnam attempted to introduce Vietnamese culture in the country, which Cambodians resisted,” said Kok-Thay Eng, director of research at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), adding that the loss of Kampuchea Krom decades earlier had already raised tensions.

Today, he said, many Cambodians feel that their jobs are under threat from Vietnamese immigrants. Others hold them responsible for illegal logging and overfishing. “Cambodian people also think that large Vietnamese companies collude with local businessmen and politicians to mine, overfish and to steal tourist money from Cambodia,” he explained.

A core part of Sarus’s attempt to counter these attitudes is the production of a body of research on Vietnamese people in Cambodia.

For the past three years, these have been presented in the form of research papers.

The research this year will result in a short documentary film, that will be screened later this month. Most of the documentary was filmed in the Kandal village and focuses on how Vietnamese and ethnic Vietnamese people go about their daily lives.

The director, Porchhay Seng, 23, a student of International Studies at the Institute for Foreign Languages, said he applied for the exchange because of his passion for short films and working in the community.

He admitted that before he began the exchange, he shared the view that Vietnamese people came to Cambodia with an ulterior motive. “Sometimes I thought maybe there was some kind of secret agenda with them coming, because we have a lot of experience of losing our territory,” he said. “But now I know that’s not true.”

The stereotypes move in both directions.

Phantran Hong Tram, 20, lives and studies at a university in Ho Chi Minh City. July’s visit was her first to Cambodia, and on the first day of the exchange, she explained that some Vietnamese people think
of Cambodians as practitioners of magic – and suppliers of love potions.

“For example if you love someone, you can come to Cambodia and ask for some leaves for that person to drink, and then they will love you too,” she said.

“Because of this belief, Vietnamese people feel scared and are afraid of communicating with Cambodians. People are afraid of difference. But it’s wrong: we have to be friendly and feel free to make friends.”

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