Along the northern stretch of the Tonle Sap River, the rumors of violence have drifted from houseboat to houseboat since early spring.
In this small fishing community miles away from the nearest major town, word has spread about the April massacre of fishermen to the north and last month’s beating deaths of four people in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital--most singled out for being ethnic Vietnamese. “Of course we are afraid,” said villager Nguyen Thi Dan. “When there is trouble, we are the first ones they blame.”
Dan, a 48-year-old widow with five children, is right to fear: She and others in Cambodia’s estimated 500,000-strong ethnic Vietnamese community have been the political scapegoats of the season. This election year, centuries-old distrust between Cambodia’s ethnic Khmer majority and Vietnamese found new life in the rhetoric of political leaders all too willing to exploit ethnic tensions.
It has played out in some of the worst violence against ethnic Vietnamese since the period leading up to 1993 elections, when at least 139 were killed in politically charged attacks and about 8,000 fled to refugee camps along the border, according to Amnesty International.
Human rights observers confirmed that four ethnic Vietnamese were beaten and stoned to death and nearly a dozen more attacked last month in Phnom Penh by mobs reacting to rumors that Vietnamese were behind an outbreak of food poisoning.
In a separate incident in April, 23 people in the primarily Vietnamese northern village of Chhnok Trou were slain by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Survivors recounted how the attackers screamed epithets as they bombarded the village. Thirteen of the dead were ethnic Vietnamese.
Over the last three years, there have been at least half a dozen such attacks on small villages throughout the countryside, according to relief workers. But political analysts and human rights workers say what makes the most recent violence more appalling is that it comes at a time when anti-Vietnamese sentiment has been encouraged for political aims.
“It’s true there’s always been some anti-Vietnamese resentment, but Cambodians and Vietnamese have managed to live fairly peacefully together,” said David Hawk of the U.N. Center for Human Rights in Cambodia. “This violence has not been a spontaneous outbreak of Khmer against Vietnamese, but deliberately planned, incited or instigated by political leaders to advance their cause.”
Opposition Parties at Center of Tension
Playing on long-held fears of encroachment by their bigger neighbor to the east, Cambodia’s opposition leaders--including Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royalist FUNCINPEC party and former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy, who heads his own faction--fanned the flames of anti-Vietnamese sentiment during the run-up to the July elections and afterward. To cheering crowds, politicians peppered speeches with yuon, a harsh term directed at Vietnamese, and railed against illegal immigrants making their way across the porous border from Vietnam.
“If I win this election, I will send the yuon immigrants back,” Rainsy promised during campaign stops. “The government works for the yuon. The government cheats the people of their money to give to the foreigners. If the Sam Rainsy Party wins, there will be no more yuon puppets in power.”
Observers in the diplomatic and international aid communities quickly denounced such inflammatory remarks, worried that they would lead to widespread ethnic violence. U.N. human rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg condemned what he called “xenophobic rhetoric.” Kao Kim Hourn, director of the Cambodia Institute for Democracy and Peace, urged restraint, calling the explosive comments a “time bomb in the making.”
“Illegal immigration and border encroachment are legitimate issues for Cambodia, but we must deal with these issues on a legal basis,” he said during a recent interview. “It hurts our relationship with Vietnam and our image in the international community for Cambodia to be seen this way.”
Yet such words of caution did little to temper the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric because it was one of the most effective ways for opposition leaders to attack Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose ruling Cambodian People’s Party won the July 26 elections. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, was elevated to power under the 1979-89 Vietnamese occupation, and his critics charge that he continues to follow orders from Hanoi.
Posters labeling Hun Sen a “yuon puppet” showed up during demonstrations last month in the capital, when thousands of opposition supporters clogged the streets to protest fraud and intimidation tactics they said occurred during the elections.
Animosity Evident in the Capital
The most strident anti-Vietnamese voice has been that of Rainsy, a bespectacled intellectual who touts himself as a progressive. In a recent interview, he denied singling out ethnic Vietnamese but said issues concerning illegal immigration and border disputes with Vietnam are valid ones to raise.
“What I want to say is that Cambodia has to defend its national interests,” he explained in the kitchen of his heavily guarded home. “I don’t blame the [Vietnamese] people, but I do attack, target and condemn the present leadership because it’s been installed by the Vietnamese government.”
Though Rainsy says he makes a distinction between the people and the government of Vietnam, it’s clear that many of his followers don’t. The animosity is almost palpable in the capital, where virtually any mention of Vietnamese triggers an instinctive “I hate them” response from Cambodians.
It’s an attitude that has spread to even the far reaches of the countryside, leaving the ethnic Vietnamese community of mainly farmers, fishermen and small-scale merchants living along the Tonle Sap River fearful of escalating tensions and wary of further attacks.
“Many of the Vietnamese living here are from families who have been in Cambodia for decades,” said Hawk of the United Nations. “By any definition, these are Cambodians of Vietnamese descent.”
Here in the small floating village tucked 25 miles south of Siem Reap, Vietnamese and Cambodians have lived near each other for generations and mixed regularly. “There haven’t been any problems,” said Dan, the villager.
Dan and her husband were born here. Their grandparents were fishermen in the Mekong Delta who migrated into Cambodia searching for a place away from wartime strife.
For the most part, they and other Vietnamese immigrants found that peace. Dan’s daughter, Thuy, married a Cambodian five years ago, and it’s Saroeun, a burly, dark-skinned man with an easy smile, who provides most of the income and a home for his wife’s family.
Dan and her family escaped to Vietnam during the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, when more than 1 million people in Cambodia were slain, but returned in 1986 during the occupation by Vietnamese troops.
“This is my home here,” she said simply.
But with the recent tensions, Dan admitted that neighbors have become much more wary of each other. And she has become fearful with the news of the attacks on other Vietnamese. In times of conflict, she said, it becomes easy to turn against each other.
“You don’t want to believe that anything can happen. But who knows?” she asked.
“I don’t want to leave again, but I may not have a choice.”