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Racism in Cambodia

Rodion Ebbinghausen / gbMarch 5, 2014

Cambodia has been ruled for nearly 25 years by Hun Sen. His biggest rival is Sam Rainsy, who, in his struggle for power, has made use of widespread racism toward the Vietnamese.

Buddhist monks protesting in Phnom Penh
Image: Reuters

"We must free our country from the hands of this leadership," opposition leader Sam Rainsy harangued during a speech in the United States. "The leadership is destroying our country, murdering it bit by bit. They are giving the 'yuon' the chance to kill Cambodia." In Cambodia's Khmer language, 'yuon' is a term for the Vietnamese.

Rainsy repeatedly makes use of national resentments toward Vietnam and the ethnic Vietnamese minority in the country to raise his political profile. About five percent of Cambodians are of Vietnamese extraction.

Karl-Heinz Golzio, a historian who has written an extensive history of Cambodia, is watching this development with concern.

Sam Rainsy at a campaign rally in Phnom Penh
Opposition figure Rainsy plays the racism cardImage: Reuters

He criticizes Hun Sen for corruption and nepotism, but also Rainsy for exploiting the country's widespread xenophobia toward Vietnam and the Vietnamese.

"In Cambodian politics, it seems as though you only have a choice between corruption and pogrom," Golzio said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Historical hatred

The prejudices against Vietnamese are rooted in history, he explains. For hundreds of years the two countries have shared a common history full of wars, immigration and invasion. Most of the time, Cambodia got the shorter end of the stick.

A touchy issue is also Prime Minister Hun Sen. The former member of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's radical communists who brutally murdered between 1.7 and 2.2 million of their countrymen, fled to Vietnam to escape the wrath of his own party cohorts.

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 to put an end to the Khmer Rouge regime, it installed Hun Sen, first as deputy prime minister and foreign minister, and then later, in 1985, appointed him prime minister.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen
Hun Sen is seen by many as a minion of Vietnamese interests in CambodiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Cambodians frequently ignore the fact," Golzio explains, "that the Vietnamese toppled a terror regime and, in doing so, allowed life in Cambodia to more or less return to normal."

But that hasn't stopped Rainsy and his Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) from spewing invective against the yuon, whom he notes, have been in Cambodia for 400 years. "They are good for nothing. And the current leadership is a lackey of the yuon, who can still do whatever they want," Rainsy has said.

Corruption and nepotism

There is no denying the fact that Vietnam, from time to time, has seriously overstepped boundaries and exerted undue influence on Cambodia. "This has to do with corruption in the Cambodian government, which has been known to bow to the wishes of a Vietnamese company or look into a complaint from Hanoi," says Hans-Georg Jonek, from Germany's Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Hun Sen has also been half-hearted about land grabs against locals in favor of "rubber barons" from Vietnam, according to a report by the NGO Global Witness.

Cambodian rubber plantation
Vietnamese 'rubber barons' are blamed for land grabsImage: Global Witness

"Racism is a problem that encompasses not only the CNRP, but also other political parties as well. It goes much deeper than any political party. The government and all political actors need to get away from any sort of hate speech. Racism is an ongoing problem which could burst out into larger violence," warns Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia.

In defense of Rainsy, however, Robertson at least considers the opposition figure to be honest and sincere. "He is a person who for the last two decades has sacrificed a great deal personally for Cambodia," says the HRW director. He has managed to jump into the thick of politics without becoming one of Hun Sen's minions.

Rainsy himself says that he has "nothing against Vietnam or the Vietnamese, but rather against the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments and their current policies."

Jonek, from the Naumann Foundation says Rainsy enjoys a great deal of respect in ASEAN, which is why his organization trains members of its women's league, youth group and provincial office staff. "But," he stressed, "there is no direct financial support of the party and no direct support in the election campaign."

Redacted on 18 April, 2014: the word "derogatory" was removed from the first paragraph.