When it comes to ethnic violence in Southeast Asia, the Rohingyas, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, come to mind. Indeed, the Rohingyas’ horrendous suffering has reverberated across the globe, shaking the world’s sensibilities. Nevertheless, the Rohingyas are not the only suffering ethnic minorities in the racial kaleidoscope that is Southeast Asia. In fact, there are many ethnicities that are also experiencing persecution in the form of ethnic violence and state denial, but whose plight fails to achieve the same prominence as the Rohingyas. The ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia are a prime example of these lesser-known ethnic minorities suffering persecution in Southeast Asia. The historical context surrounding this ethnic group has made its already precarious existence all the more tragic and harrowing.
The origin of Vietnamese in Cambodia traces back to the Southward expansion of Vietnam from the 11th century to the 18th century, during which many Vietnamese dynasties gradually expanded Vietnam’s territory and took over the Kampuchea Krom region from a weakened Cambodia, creating Southern Vietnam as it is today. Even with the completion of the conquest, Vietnam still tried to subjugate Cambodia by imposing Vietnamese customs, without any regard for the local traditions, and by colonizing Cambodia.
This process then picked up pace during the French colonial period (1863-1953), as more Vietnamese arrived in Cambodia as employers of the colonial authority, all thanks to their perceived “superiority” over the Khmer, the indigenous population of Cambodia. By the 1970s, the number of Vietnamese in Cambodia had reached 400,000, or five percent, of Cambodia’s population. Thus, it is easy to see that for Cambodians, the Vietnamese have come to symbolize a dark chapter of their country’s history, during which their autonomy and cultural heritage were trampled. These historical grievances reared their ugly heads during and after the 1970s with grave consequences for the Vietnamese Cambodians, who were blamed for their historical role as Cambodia’s tormentors.
Indeed, the 1970s were catastrophic for ethnic Vietnamese. In 1970, General Lon Nol overthrew the Cambodian monarchy and ushered in his new-found republic with the killing of thousands of Vietnamese in Cambodia and the forced displacement of thousands more. However, Lon Nol was just the beginning of a downward spiral for the human rights of the Vietnamese minority.
After the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, the situation of ethnic Vietnamese deteriorated further, with the new government displacing 170,000 people. The remaining 30,000 suffered under horrendous conditions, including ethnic cleansing, as the Khmer Rouge plunged Cambodia into a new dark age. However, many Vietnamese soon returned to Cambodia in the wake of Vietnam’s 1978 invasion. Though Vietnam’s occupation did bring about a cessation in ethnic Vietnamese’ suffering under the Khmer Rouge, it also heightened the deep-seated historical grievances of Cambodians against Vietnamese, as Cambodians perceived this as another attempt at Vietnamese encroachment on Cambodia.
After Vietnam withdrew its troops in 1989 and Cambodia gradually democratized, ethnic Vietnamese’ situation still did not improve. In fact, there were many instances of lethal ethnic violence against Vietnamese during the 1990s, with one incident in 1993 leaving 139 dead and thousands fleeing from their homes. Cambodian leaders’ statements only exacerbated anti-Vietnamese feelings. For instance, King Norodom Sihanouk accused Vietnam of violating Cambodia’s sovereignty, engendering a series of anti-Vietnamese protests.
The opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, has been one of the most prominent examples of such a politician. In fact, it is not rare for Rainsy to embellish his political speeches with the word “yuon,” a racial slur for Vietnamese
Other politicians, realizing that anti-Vietnamese sentiments could easily translate into electoral support, were more than willing to stoke racial hatred for political gain. The opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, has been one of the most prominent examples of such a politician. In fact, it is not rare for Rainsy to embellish his political speeches with the word “yuon,” a racial slur for Vietnamese, and rail against the supposed destruction of the Cambodian nation at the hand of the “yuon.” Such rhetoric, no doubt, feeds into the already simmering animus toward Vietnamese, thus creating an endless cycle of hatred that bodes ill for the ethnic minority. With such examples, one can see how the Cambodian government of Hun Sen, an ally of Vietnam, could not do much to combat these erroneous accustionations without being accused of being Vietnam’s stooge.
On legal grounds, the provisions of the 1994 Law of Immigration seriously challenge ethnic Vietnamese’ existence. And although the legality of ethnic Chinese and Cham is not in question, ethnic Vietnamese have been deliberately excluded. This presents a daunting challenge for Vietnamese, as only “Khmer citizens” can enjoy the rights and liberties outlined in the Cambodian Constitution.
To make matters worse, Vietnamese Cambodians also do not have Vietnamese citizenship as a result of their long residence in Cambodia. This means that ethnic Vietnamese are stateless aliens in both Cambodia and Vietnam. In practice, this lack of concrete citizenship deprives ethnic Vietnamese of the rights to obtain land for building houses, forcing them to live precarious lives on the water, especially around Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Cambodia. By living on the water, ethnic Vietnamese have suffered from the worsening environmental condition of Lake Tonle Sap.
Even then, housing is just one of the many problems facing the already hard-pressed group. As they lack firm constitutional standing in Cambodia, ethnic Vietnamese also lack access to identification papers so that they cannot vote, cannot find jobs, and are especially vulnerable to police harassment. For the group’s children, the lack of proper papers denies them of any opportunities to enter public schools, and instead they must choose other underfunded institutions specially catered to ethnic Vietnamese. This lack of schooling may then lead to fewer opportunities for upward mobility for these Vietnamese children, thus perpetuating the cycle of tenuous existence, with no end in sight.
The marginalization of Vietnamese Cambodians from almost every aspect of life is nothing short of harrowing. Yet, what is most disconcerting is that this maltreatment has permeated almost every social strata, every political persuasion; so much so that anti-Vietnamese sentiment has been normalized in Cambodia. Perhaps a willing government is the only missing factor in the nefarious combination of widespread racism and historical hatred that is currently on its way to create another Rohingya-like crisis. The world, as a result, must give the Vietnamese Cambodians the attention they need and exert pressure on the Cambodian Government to change course before it is all too late.
Tri Vo is an M.A. Candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Asian Affairs. He has a deep interest in East Asian international relations, history, and politics.