Hatred of ‘the Other’: Cambodia, Racism and Ultra Nationalism

November 5, 2013 – Jeff Mudrick

“All Cambodians remember the sad fate of Kampuchea Krom or Southern Cambodia, a former Cambodian territory made up of 21 Khmer provinces, which was annexed by Vietnam in the last century with the complicity of the French colonialists following decades of massive immigration. Eventually Vietnamese largely outnumbered Cambodians and the new demographical balance, as a fait accompli, was the justification for the annexation by Vietnam. Cambodians are now afraid of another fait accompli which could be under preparation and which would mean, this time, the death of their motherland.”

– Sam Rainsy, Cambodia Daily, Letter to the Editor October 2013

On November 9, Miss Truong Thi May (Reaksmey), will represent Vietnam in the Miss Universe pageant being held in Moscow. Cambodia, following the wishes of its long serving prime minister, will not be represented. What is significant about the Vietnamese entrant is that she was in fact born in Phnom Penh to a Khmer mother and a father of mixed Vietnamese-Khmer heritage, raised from infancy in An Giang province of Vietnam as a member of the minority Khmer Krom community in Bac Lieu.

She speaks unaccented Khmer and her culture and self-described ethnicity is Khmer. The Khmer Krom community in Vietnam, particularly in the spheres of education and religion has been according to numerous human rights organizations the subject of various kinds of discrimination and intolerance.

Nothwithstanding such issues, her nationality, according to numerous interviews, is proudly Vietnamese. It would be naive to suggest that Miss May’s elevation to the national stage represents a signal change in the treatment of Vietnam’s minority population, but it would be equally naïve to suggest that a non ethnic Kinh representing Vietnam is not of some substantial symbolic importance in understanding how the nation of Vietnam chooses to see itself.

Once cannot imagine, let alone hope, that in Cambodia something along the same lines might take place, even at the level of a beauty pageant. The Khmer have, to put it mildly, a problem with the large Vietnamese minority in Cambodia, a problem which is long standing, deep rooted, seemingly intractable, and, given the military capability of its neighbors to the east, extremely dangerous. It shows no signs of being resolved for reasons which I’ll suggest, but, for the sake of both Khmer and Vietnamese it surely must be, if not for the cause of human rights, then in the interest of continuing peace and economic stability.

Alongside coverage of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s anti-Vietnamese campaigning there appeared in the build-up to the most recent Cambodian national election a number of articles in local news outlets which focused on the human interest aspect of the difficulties faced by ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, particularly in the context of this national election: one in which the CNRP accused the ruling government of jumping to the tune of Hanoi and allowing the slow takeover and ultimate destruction of the nation through massive Vietnamese immigration and empowerment.

There is nothing new in this accusation, nor in the receptivity of this message to a large percentage of the population. The only thing new it seems is the new prominence of the internet in spreading this message among the young, but therein, in my judgment lies the potential for far greater danger ahead. After reading these various articles one is left with the question, so what then?

Some background first.

For centuries the Vietnamese and Khmer, both ancient kingdoms – the royal city of Hanoi being founded one hundred years before the Khmer empire reached its peak – had very little contact with each other. They share few cultural antecedents and were long separated by geography. The Vietnamese march towards the Khmer occupied Mekong Delta from their Red River homeland began in earnest in the 17th century. The desire on the part of the weakened Khmer kingdom for peace with the Vietnamese, who by then had absorbed the Kingdom of Champa, resulted in the Vietnamese being allowed to settle in Prey Nokor, then a small trading center, now known as Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.

By the end of the 18th century, Vietnamese had settled in, and were in control of, most of the sparsely settled Mekong Delta, a process of colonization which unerringly fratricidal and short-term thinking Cambodian royals where unable to resist.

Indeed they were often complicit in trading off territories in return for protection, trapped as they were between the two vastly more powerful kingdoms of Vietnam and Siam. While there were occasional military confrontations during this process (and a handful of 19th century rebellions afterward), it was primarily an extended period of peaceful settlement, but one which is now called by some Khmer observers a “silent genocide”.

With a more powerful Vietnam united after 1802, Cambodia desperately weakened by war and infighting, and formerly cordial relations between the Vietnamese and Siamese broken down, the Vietnamese first asserted control over Cambodia through a loyal royal, before ultimately embarking upon an ill fated full-fledged and quite brutal military occupation of eastern Cambodia in the 1830s.

Initially the Vietnamese emperor had viewed this as a “civilizing mission”, one in which the Vietnamese expected and relied upon the cooperation of local Khmer oknya (appointed nobility, more or less), all of whom would benefit from such an arrangement. It was a miserable failure. The more the local leaders resisted, the more heavy handed the Vietnamese became in their pursuit of Vietnamization. Being told to dictate how Khmer were to eat and dress was bad enough for theoknya, taking direct charge of lucrative customs duties proved to be the last straw and open rebellion against the Vietnamese broke out in 1840.

In came the Thais, as was their wont, to battle the Vietnamese and war continued until soon after the death of the Vietnamese emperor a face saving peace was reached in 1848. The new Khmer sovereign was to pay tribute to both Thailand and Vietnam. The reality was that a frustrated Vietnam went back to its corner scratching its head about the bull-headed Khmer and the Thais again took on the role of overseer and protector until the French Protectorate was established fifteen years later.

The Khmer have through folk tales if not from any profound knowledge of history, passed on from generation to generation the sufferings and humiliations of this period, and the hatred for those who caused them (see “The Master’s Tea,” the tale of the forced labor construction of the Vinh Te Canal as the most famous example).

The Thais though certainly not opposed to sacking and pillaging but more culturally and religiously familiar to the Khmer, get off rather lightly in the realm of Khmer folk tales and residual animosity. The Thai’s destruction of Phnom Penh in 1772 is pretty much forgotten, the Viet reenactment a few decades later lives on in core mythology. The Thai’s absorption of the once Mon and Khmer dominated area of what is now central Thailand never happened, the loss of Koh Trahl (Phu Quoc) and Prey Nokor may as well have happened last week. Champa-Vietnam-Cambodia relations, usually summed up by Khmers as “the Vietnamese swallowed Champa” is rather more complex and the Khmer were not exactly innocent bystanders in the destruction of the Cham kingdom. Thus, Michael Vickery writes in his paper Champa Revisited:

“Struggles between north Champa and Vietnam began after the latter’s independence in the late tenth century, but it was not, as conventionally believed, a constant push southward by the Vietnamese. The first war, and others later, was provoked by the Cham. Real Champa weakness with respect to Đại Việt began only after the 30 years of involvement with Cambodia in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, which may have caused more political and economic damage to Champa than any previous intervention from Vietnam.”

The French protectorate, welcomed by Cambodia’s King Norodom both to keep himself in power and to stave away further loss of territories to the Thais and Vietnamese, put an administrative stamp on the existing reality of the Khmer loss of territory to their eastern and western neighbors.

To the east a formerly unified Vietnam was, under French rule, broken apart into three jurisdictions, with Cochin China, encompassing the former Khmer Krom, administered as a colony. The French later persuaded the Thais to return to Cambodia the territories of Battambang and Siem Reap, but, in contrast to the Vietnamese occupation of the the Mekong Delta, these provinces had never seen significant Thai settlement. Hundreds of years of earlier Khmer settlement notwithstanding, and with the ratio of Viets to Khmer in Cochin China already greater than 10-1 by the turn of the 20th century, the French had no interest in provoking conflict with their favored if troublesome Vietnamese colony to appease its weak and less valued Cambodian protectorate.

New Vietnamese settlers arrived in larger numbers with the coming of the French Protectorate of Cambodia in 1863. The Khmer workforce being largely unskilled and uneducated (and according to French bias irredeemably corrupt and untrainable), the French recruited Vietnamese as administrators and brought in thousands to work in the rubber plantations of the north and east.

As Phnom Penh boomed Vietnamese were brought in as construction workers (wooden and thatched Phnom Penh had burned in the 1870s) and skilled laborers, as household servants, and in myriad other roles in the new urban economy of French Cambodia’s new capital. Vietnamese convict labor was brought in to build the perilous Bokor Mountain road and resort near Kampot. In the countryside Vietnamese came sans shackles, up the Mekong and Bassac rivers to work as fisherman and rice farmers, often bringing different techniques by which they prospered.

By the time of the 1921 census, Vietnamese were found to constitute six percent of Cambodia’s population, concentrated then, as now, in Phnom Penh, along the Mekong (Kratie, Kompong Cham) in the floating fishing villages of the Tonle Sap and in the border areas such as Prey Veng and Svay Rieng. This six percent figure is believed to be about the same as in the period before 1970. Despite intervening wars, deportations and new waves of immigration it is also about what most scholars believe to be the the Vietnamese share of Cambodia’s population today

“All Khmer citizens shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights, freedom and fulfilling the same obligations regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth or other status.” 
– Article 31 Cambodian Constitution

“No Annamite (Vietnamese) will sleep peacefully until he has succeeded in pushing Cambodia towards annihilation, having made it first go through the stage of slavery.”
– Prince Norodom Sihanouk

With independence in 1954 came the difficult task of deciding how to treat this substantial national minority. To some, the language in the Cambodian Constitution is ambiguous, being that in the Khmer language the word for Cambodian and Khmer is the same.

Be that as it may, any inkling that the framers intended to extend the rights of citizenship to Vietnamese was soon clarified by legislative actions in 1956, 1958 1959 and 1963 which restricted Vietnamese access to various occupations and narrowed their avenues to naturalization and citizenship. The 1963 legislative action made it clear that Vietnamese were to be explicitly excluded from naturalization as they were “immune to Khmerization”.

Whether this interpretation is constitutional has, of course, never been tested, and subsequent history and legislative action strongly suggests that no Khmer politician of any stripe would step forward to argue for a contrary interpretation.

Norodom Sihanouk made it clear in his pronouncements, as have many others, that this same discriminatory treatment ought not and does not in fact apply either to indigenous Cambodian tribal peoples “Khmer Loeu”, or to the Cham people, “Khmer Islam”, though both maintain their own cultural and religious values and live in their own communities.

Whether one wishes to characterize the Khmer view of the Vietnamese as racism or ethnic chauvinism, the Khmer are quite clear on the matter, as the Khmer language does in fact distinguish between ethnicity and race, and while the Khmer Loeu and Cham are viewed as ethnic minorities, the Vietnamese to the Khmer are indeed members of a different race.

By the early sixties most of the growth in the Viet population was in an around Phnom Penh, where the Vietnamese population was thought to be in the range of 150,000. Phnom Penh’s substantial Chinese population, while treated as foreign residents under the law, were never singled out for the same type of persecutions as the Vietnamese despite their far greater control of the economy and trade.

This situation it should be noted continues today when it comes to the issue of foreign concessions,far more of which are owned by Chinese than Vietnamese. Cambodia’s primary export industry and major employer, the booming but troubled garment industry is almost entirely Chinese/Taiwanese owned and subject to few controls. For Sam Rainsy, notwithstanding their ownership of land concessions which he lambasts (though only calling out the Vietnamese) the Chinese are “our dear friends”, while the “Yuons come to steal our land”.

With Lon Nol’s rise to power in 1970 came pogroms against Cambodia’s Vietnamese communities. Tens of thousands of innocent Vietnamese neighbors were slaughtered, the bodies of women and children observed floating down the Mekong. There was no popular outcry in opposition.

Half of the Vietnamese community, an estimated 200,000-250,000 people, fled to Vietnam by early 1975. With the coming of the Khmer Rouge, it of course got worse. Most of the remaining Vietnamese, approximately 170,000 people, were forcibly “repatriated” to Vietnam (a land many had never seen) between the spring and fall of 1975. None of the 20-30,000 of those those who remained, mostly those with Khmer spouses and children, are known to have survived the KR period.

For those of the 450,000 or so ethnic Vietnamese for whom Cambodia was home in 1970 and who survived the Seventies, the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and installation of the PRK regime in 1979 – protected by 150,000 Vietnamese troops – brought some opportunity to return to their homes.

Many did, one report citing as many as 250,000 of the immigrants from Vietnam during the period 1979-1989 being in fact returnees. How many other Vietnamese immigrated during this period simply cannot be known. While some argue perhaps 300,000 in total immigrated during the period, the French ethnographer Martin states (without any attempt at documentary evidence) that a million Vietnamese immigrated to Cambodia under the cover of the PRK regime.

Whatever their numbers, the PRK considered these immigrants as legal permanent residents but not citizens, and made no provisions for their naturalization. Given the lack of border control and naturalization procedures for the most part those who came during this period remained undocumented. Popular rumors of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants and soldiers being given land titles in the eastern provinces are not supported by any evidence that I’ve been able to uncover.

The departure of the last of the Vietnamese troops in 1989 and the Paris Peace talks which followed again brought the issue of the Vietnamese residents to the forefront. In 1991 the Khmer Rouge and Son Sann’s right wing KPNLF party both called for the immediate and complete deportation of all ethnic Vietnamese regardless of status. The Khmer Rouge initially put that number at three million, a number they had increased to four million by 1993. Other parties while more subtle in their provocations strayed not far from that line (FUNCINPEC would soon also call for mass deportations).

On the one hand the arrival of thousands of UNTAC personnel resulted in a new wave of Vietnamese workers of every kind, particularly in construction and carpentry but in services as well (including prostitution), just as they had come in the boom in Phnom Penh one hundred years earlier.

At the same time anti-Vietnamese hysteria resulted in the murder and harassment of Vietnamese civilians to sufficient extent that another mass exodus of Vietnamese began. Fisherman abandoned their grounds, boats headed for the Vietnamese border and 1993 fish prices skyrocketed. They were not welcomed in Vietnam. The Vietnamese authorities asserted that regardless of ethnicity these were Cambodian nationals and not Vietnam’s problem to solve.

UNTAC, while aiming to secure franchise rights and presumably rights of citizenship for adults born in Cambodia regarding of parentage, ultimately caved in to political pressures from all sides, and such rights as reflected in the voting law fell back upon the traditional Khmer view of Cambodian citizenship, that is, the law was drafted to make it as difficult as possible for Vietnamese residents to obtain the rights of citizenship by requiring documentation regarding the birthplace in Cambodia of at least one parent.

The 1996 Law of Nationality, went further yet, providing not only that the applicant for citizenship have two parents born in Cambodia, but also that one must be able to document that those parents were at the time of the applicant’s birth legal residents. For Vietnamese who fled the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes, few possessed documentation upon their return.

As non-citizen Vietnamese are routinely denied by local officials the right to record their children’s births and thus obtain Family Books and ID cards, the logic is circular and makes it virtually impossible for most Vietnamese to comply with these provisions absent corrupt officials’ complicity.

The law pertaining to naturalization was likewise designed to make that path an unlikely one for Vietnamese to follow, leaving all kinds of discretion to local officials as to language ability and the applicants ability to live in harmony in Khmer society with Khmer custom and tradition, which Cambodian legislative action and popular belief have pre-determined it is impossible for Vietnamese to do, though, admittedly, corruption has been shown to trump racism in some circumstances.

As it was, during the ’90s, both before and after the Law of Nationality, it was common practice for authorities to confiscate papers documenting ethnic Vietnamese prior status, commonly replacing Cambodian ID’s for ID cards which identified Vietnamese as “immigrants” regardless of their circumstances. At the same time, the system being corrupt to its core, those with enough money, regardless of prior status, could purchase ID cards without difficulty.

Today, with the 1996 Laws on Immigration and Nationality unchanged another generation of ethnic Vietnamese has been added to the numbers of stateless individuals and families. Families who, unless they have the money to bribe local officials, cannot vote, cannot own land, cannot enroll children in public Khmer school, cannot open a bank account, cannot record the birth of their children or the deaths of their parents. The border of course remains porous, passage back and forth easily accomplished given a wave and few thousand riel, and so, depending on the relative strength of the two economies, more Vietnamese immigrants arrive to join their families or to otherwise find a place in Cambodia, or perhaps just as frequently, return to family or better economic opportunity in Vietnam when things go the other way.

“Every prostitute is Vietnamese and every Vietnamese girl a prostitute”
– A commonly repeated Khmer saying

Studies have confirmed that most recent economic migrants come with the intention of returning to Vietnam. Regardless of intention or length of stay, for those who remain in Cambodia their mere presence, whether as undocumented or documented residents raises among many Khmer a fury come election time or in times of economic distress.

The cry of “they come to steal our jobs” is mostly unfair. Large waves of immigration brought Vietnamese with skills Khmers did not possess – particularly in construction and carpentry — or to do jobs Khmers had never chosen for their livelihoods.

Most unfair perhaps was the common accusation that all female Vietnamese immigrants came to work as prostitutes. Without question there were many who did though “choice” was not always involved: the infamous brothels of the area known as K-11 being predominantly Vietnamese.

But there was and is prostitution everywhere in Cambodia and Vietnamese women were to be found in all kinds of service jobs and in every large marketplace. One survey of sex workers (completed while K-11 was still booming) found just 18 percent of sex workers to be ethnic Vietnamese.

It is in the fishing communities that most often open conflict is reported between Khmer and Vietnamese on economic grounds. Stories of Vietnamese using illegal nets and straying over the border in Kampot are not unusual, nor are complaints of illegal fishing methods on the Tonle Sap (by both Khmer and Vietnamese).

While one Khmer village leader in a recent interview for an English language paper grudgingly acknowledged that the Vietnamese fisherman simply worked harder then their Khmer counterparts, there is no doubt that illegal fishing practices present a serious issue in the industry, and when combined with the impact of dams, pesticides and warming temperatures the continued viability of the fishing grounds is not assured.

In order to address issues of sustainability the government in 2001 made radical changes in its allocation of fishing grounds and their management, establishing a system of smaller scale community fisheries. Unfortunately given the tremendous number of Vietnamese in the industry, a the 2002 Fisheries Sub-Decree excludes non-Khmer nationals from the system. While a few Vietnamese village chiefs may attend meetings, many Vietnamese fisherman are unaware that the system of community fisheries even exists.

How many Vietnamese are here and how many are legal residents? People certainly have opinions if not ones informed by facts. Most scholars and observers continue to use a figure of 5% of the Cambodian population, i.e. around 700,000. As observed earlier, this is approximately the same percentage as been observed since at least 1921 which the obvious exception of the Khmer Rouge period.

Observers and bloggers associated now with the CNRP, many of whom are based overseas, use figures as high as 40% of the overall population (6 million Vietnamese), a number which on its face seems completely absurd in its implications, as do even the lower end estimates of the anti-Vietnamese politicians who usually use figures of 3-5 million. To the extent that their estimates are referenced, they simply reference another observer/blogger whose estimate is similarly unsupported or refers back to that same observer referencing them. In other words, there is nothing in the literature to remotely suggest these numbers are accurate.

One “scholar” unafraid of laying out the consequences, boldly asserts that 40% of the voting population is comprised of Vietnamese immigrants who support the CPP, including the majority of the population of Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces.

That the CPP failed to win the election in one of these provinces and barely won in the other is not explained. Nor is the lack of chaos at polling stations which, given the extent of anti-Vietnamese hostility, one would expect if 40% of the voters showing up to vote were Vietnamese. In LICADHO’s report on the 2013 election there were indeed numerous cases of individuals being denied the right to vote because they were presumed to be Vietnamese, either by election officials or through intimidation by Khmer crowds, but in each reported case these were single individuals who may or may not have been entitled to vote. None of the rumors of truckloads of Vietnamese being brought across the border to vote are documented.

One explanation for the wild estimates of the number of Vietnamese is that Khmer, despite overwhelming confidence in their ability to do so, cannot reliably discern who is Vietnamese and who is not. Whether by language (Khmer Krom are often identified as Vietnamese because of their accent), dress, occupation, or physical appearance, researchers have shown that Khmers are quite often mistaken, particularly in identifying ethnic Chinese as Vietnamese, but Khmer as well particularly when looking at skin color as a determining factor.

The (mis)perception about the number of Vietnamese, not surprisingly perhaps lead to a whole raft of other fears and accusations. In an opinion piece which recently appeared in the internet journal Asia Times entitiled “Vietnam’s Hidden Hand in Cambodia’s Impasse”, author Hassan Kasem, (ironically) a Cham by ethnicity, a former pilot with Lon Nol’s air force in the last days preceding the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, and a former RFA contributor, rolls out a whole catalog of bizarre and undocumented claims regarding the extent of the Vietnamese takeover. It is a classic example of nationalist propaganda masked by false references which conveniently compiles much of what is believed by an unfortunately large segment of the Khmer population.

He claims “Hun Sen and his CPP Party have relied every election cycle on at least 3 million Vietnamese immigrants who unfailingly vote for the CPP to guarantee victory”: a number pulled from thin air but sufficiently threatening to enrage the street to action.

He claims that $20B in UN Aid was necessitated by the 1979 Vietnamese invasion rather then the nine years of bombing and destruction which preceded it.

He claims in 1986 Hun Sen signed a directive facilitating the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese settlers. There were indeed directives issued to local officials to help integrate temporary Vietnamese workers into local communities (see Martin for example), but none of these directives spoke to the issue of land ownership or citizenship, nor is there a citation anywhere to document the number of workers involved. “Hundreds of thousands” is simply a made up figure calculated to rile the electorate.

He cites the loss of Koh Trahl, the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, as Cambodia’s most glaring and recent loss when in fact the island has been under Vietnamese administrative control for more than 150 years. To suggest as many CNRP advocates do that the island was lost only in the transition to independence is to ignore some rather obvious realities of historical geopolitics. To suggest that it be returned to Cambodia is only slightly less ludicrous than demanding that the city of Saigon be returned, or that California (which has been American about as long as Phu Quoc has been Vietnamese) be returned to Mexico.

He states that foreign academics are wise to the Vietnamese takeover, then immediately cites, not a respected academic but former prisoner of war Michael Benge and his claim of Vietnamese tanks and helicopters standing at the ready two kilometers outside Phnom Penh. Benge cited no source in making this claim in 2007.

Sadly and tellingly, Kasem disparages Hun Sen for using the phrase “people of Kampuchea” when referring to Cambodians in lieu of “Khmer” and claims that Khmer are “penalized” for using the word “Yuon” to refer to their eastern neighbors and the Vietnamese community within Cambodia. Clearly there is no room for non-Khmer (except Cham of course) in Mr. Kasem’s Cambodia.

By positing the Vietnamese threat in such ridiculous terms, the CNRP have rendered themselves virtually powerless to do anything about it. For if they truly believe there are 3-6 million illegal Vietnamese, existing immigration and naturalization laws offer no reasonable remedy.

The letter of the of the laws combined with local officials unwillingness to comply with the laws when it comes to documenting Vietnamese immigrants together means it is virtually impossible to distinguish between who should be entitled to Cambodian nationality and those who should not. Cambodia is a member of ASEAN and the international community. From a human rights perspective the mass deportation of the Vietnamese community simply cannot happen and CNRP has offered no alternative.

From the perspective of economic disruption the implications are unthinkable. Thus, unless Sam Rainsy has a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, CNRP has nothing of substance to contribute to solving the problem of the Vietnamese.

Indeed, CNRP supporters are likely only to create more potential for instability in violence over the next five years preceding the 2018 national election. As more and more supporters come to rely on the internet for information extremist views which they already dominate the English language Cambodian web may get even more prominence. In many cases these completely out of touch extremist views come, not surprisingly, from the Khmer diaspora but through Facebook and YouTube more of this is being seen locally.

There are in fact plenty of Hassan Kasem’s out there who write of 6 million Vietnamese, organized into associations supported by the Vietnamese government which are no less than sleeper cells awaiting the call on the red phone from Hanoi. According to some of these observer, the CPP leadership as determined “through data and morphological studies” are actually Vietnamese, and the Khmer Rouge actually Viet Cong. CNRP leader Kem Sokha himself claimed S-21 as a creation of the Vietnamese before rather unconvincingly forced to backtrack on his recorded statements.

For virtually all who join in the anti-Vietnam tirade, Vietnamese corporations and people, real or imagined are all seen as synonymous with the Vietnamese state, thus Angkor Wat, the concession for which is managed by a Cambodian corporation headed by an ethnic Vietnamese is “owned by Vietnam”. The further dispersion of such views in the absence of reasoned response does not bode well for the future as it increases the likelihood that the CNRP will be pushed to radical action or, more likely to do nothing to resolve the real problem of undocumented Vietnamese.

The CPP is also in a tough spot. In popular view, this is a mess which they and their predecessors created through a lack of enforcement of immigration laws, and it should be noted, by agreeing to an unworkable Law on Nationality in the first place: not to mention their granting of concessions to Vietnamese corporations widely accused of land grabbing.

There are hundreds of thousands adult Vietnamese who arguably could be entitled to either citizenship or naturalization under the 1954 Constitution, certainly more if one were to consider a more liberal view of citizenship based upon birthright. To that extent the CPP, as the only party which does not actively race-bait the Vietnamese, serves to benefit from any significant expansion of citizenship and the franchise to the Vietnamese. They of course dread the blow-back which would ensue from their Khmer constituency, and rightly so, and so they remain silent and are likely to remain so in the forseeable future.

Is there a middle ground which, from a human rights perspective is fair to Vietnamese who have lived here for years or generations but which will also be deemed acceptable to a general population whose animosity toward the Vietnamese has been characterized by at least one human rights organization as “almost pathological”?

Probably there is not yet, for as the CPP is essentially silent the “street” only hears one side of this issue. Unfortunately, with the rising importance of the internet and the lack of historical knowledge, the ultra-nationalist voices are given a voice far overshadowing their numbers. It is going to take some very brave Khmer leaders to stand up and speak out for the long term interest of Cambodia in dealing more fairly with its most vulnerable minority and none have appeared on the horizon.

Twenty years ago, a group of Cambodian NGOs and the California Law Review in consideration of such a proposal put forward the following as a starting point:

• Cambodian nationality for those born in Cambodia before 1975
• Cambodian nationality for those resident in Cambodia before 1975
• Cambodian nationality for those resident after 1979 with at least one Cambodian parent or Cambodian spouse

The above seems entirely reasonable as far as it goes. Where it doesn’t go is to address the status of many more post 1979 immigrants – some now resident for 34 years – and their path to naturalization. Many of these people of course now have children born in Cambodia and any reasonable legal alternative is going to have to address the issue of granting Cambodian nationality if not citizenship to those immigrants as well if this cycle of statelessness and instability is ever to end. Or so it seems to a Western observer.

And of course, legalities are just that. If corruption as not addressed neither immigration reform or addressing the problem of undocumented and disenfranchised communities will happen to an effective extent.

“The essence of being Khmer for many Khmer is defined in their direct opposition to Vietnamese identity.”
– Kleger and Ehrentraut (2004), The Theory of Multiculturalism and Cultural Diversity in Cambodia

“It is necessary that we Cambodians hate the Vietnamese. There is no why, it’s just a fact”
– Reported conversation in C. Leonard’s Ethnic Identity and the Vietnamese in Cambodia

The greatest challenge, however, remains in the hearts and minds of the Khmer people themselves. It is nothing less than heartbreaking to read contemporary studies containing interviews with ethnic Vietnamese with deep roots in Cambodia and their Khmer neighbors.

The Vietnamese overwhelmingly see themselves as Cambodian, they speak Khmer, they often visit Khmer pagodas, they believe they get along well with their Khmer neighbors. Tragically the latter perception is not shared among the majority of those Khmer neighbors, for whom Vietnamese can never be Cambodian, whose mere presence constitutes a threat. The majority would be perfectly happy if those neighbors would just leave. These are the same sentiments and contrasting perceptions which existed in 1970.

Thus, the public pronouncements by CNRP officials and others who, to western observers say they have no problem with long-term Vietnamese but only illegal immigrants are, in fact pandering to the western press.

It is clear from their Khmer language speeches, from the proposals of these same leaders since the UNTAC period, and from their desire to represent a constituency whose whole identity is wrapped up in being anti-Vietnamese, that there is no room in their hearts and minds for a Vietnamese presence in Cambodia and that a large proportion of the Khmer population see things precisely the same way.

How ironic is it that more than a million and a half Khmer died at the hands of, or at least under the control of the Khmer Rouge whose partisans go about their daily lives as members of the Khmer community without popular demand that any but a handful of leaders be prosecuted (and few really care about that at this juncture). Pol Pot after all was responsible (if Khmer were responsible at all).

Yet for the Vietnamese, the sins of the fathers are not so easily washed away. From a psychological point of view, one can understand that this mostly unconscious transfer of responsibility to the “other”, and there is no other more other than the Viets, enables Khmer to get on with their lives without coming to terms with the brutalities served up by their Khmer brothers and sisters. And for that reason it may be a long, long time before a change is gonna come.

Jeff Mudrick


Christine S. Leonard, “Ethnic Identity and Vietnamese and the Vietnamese in Cambodia”
Annuska Derks, “A Picture of the Vietnamese in Cambodia” (1998)
Lyma Nguyen and Christoph Sperfeldt, “A Boat Without Anchors” (2012)
Jennifer S. Berman, California Law Review, “No Place Like Home: Anti-Vietnamese Discrimination and Nationality in Cambodia (1996)
Chandara Kin, “The Khmer Heroes Sacrifice in the Dark World” (2012)
Minority Rights Group International, “Minorities in Cambodia” (1995)
Chandy, Mohan, Nguyen et al, “Civil Parties Request for Supplementary Investigations Regarding Genocide of the Khmer Krom and Vietnamese” (2009)
Kleger and Ehrentraut, “The Theory of Muliculturalism and Cultural Diversity in Cambodia” (2004)