| PHNOM PENH, April 29
PHNOM PENH, April 29 It took just one word to
fire up the mob that beat Tran Van Chien to death after a minor
road accident in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
The 30-year-old carpenter was standing among onlookers on
Feb. 16 when someone shouted "yuon," a term widely seen as
derogatory to the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese who
call Cambodia home. Seconds later, the crowd turned on Tran Van
"There were so many people I couldn't help," recalled his
sister, Tran Yaing Chang, shuffling through photos of his
funeral. "He was killed instantly."
Cambodians have long borne a grudge against the Vietnamese.
For centuries Cambodia was caught between more powerful Thai
and Vietnamese kingdoms and for generations, many Cambodians
have believed Vietnam wants to take over their land.
At various times, Cambodian politicians have found it useful
to play up that fear.
In late 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded to overthrow the
Khmer Rouge who vilified Vietnam and launched cross-border
raids. Vietnam occupied Cambodia for the next 11 years.
Recently, the resurgent opposition Cambodia National Rescue
Party (CNRP) has stoked anti-Vietnamese sentiment, seeking to
capitalise on long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen's association
Hun Sen first came to power in a government installed by the
invading Vietnamese and his enemies have long played that up in
a bid to undermine his legitimacy.
The opposition tried to exploit the distrust of Vietnam in
an election last year some observers called racist, with party
leader Sam Rainsy routinely using the term "yuon", an old word
for Vietnamese that many find offensive, to refer to Vietnamese.
Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the CNRP, accused Vietnam of
sending immigrants to occupy Cambodian land and promised to
cancel contracts with Vietnamese companies if the CNRP won.
The CNRP has used anti-Vietnamese rhetoric since the vote
last July, which Hun Sen's party won amid allegations of
cheating. In a March meeting with supporters, Sam Rainsy said
the government planned to colonise Cambodia with "neighbours
from the east" - meaning Vietnamese.
Companies from Vietnam are growing increasingly concerned.
"I'm afraid if this kind of sentiment becomes stronger, we
might struggle doing business here," said a Phnom Penh-based
representative of a Vietnamese company producing fertilizer in
"Some people, including government officials, have said
Vietnamese businesses are taking advantage of Cambodians and
don't bring any benefits to their country," said the executive,
who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to
speak to the media.
Vietnamese businesses have been targeted during
anti-government rallies since the disputed election.
Vietnam's investments in Cambodia are worth $2.5 billion,
with bilateral trade at $3.5 billion, according to the
Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh. A Cambodian government survey
of foreign direct investment from 1994-2011 put Vietnam sixth on
a list topped by China.
"A LOT OF VIOLENCE"
A prominent human rights activist said the opposition's
rhetoric was irresponsible and dangerous.
Ou Virak, the former director of the Cambodian Center for
Human Rights, who has received death threats for speaking out
against racism, said once stoked, anti-Vietnamese anger could be
difficult to contain, and could raise tension with other ethnic
groups in Cambodia such as ethnic Chinese or Cham Muslims.
"All it needs is a spark," he said.
China is the country's biggest investor and aid donor, and
its firms have snapped up land concessions for mining,
agriculture and tourism.
Ou Virak said blaming Vietnamese for evictions or the
destruction of forests was a "perfect excuse" for those who did
not want to upset the big-spending Chinese.
Sam Rainsy declined to comment on the issue of
In an April 12 statement, the CNRP said accusations the
party was anti-Vietnamese were "groundless," and it insisted the
word "yuon" was not derogatory or racist.
About 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia, said Ang
Chanrith, director of Minority Rights Organization, basing his
estimate on interviews with Vietnamese community leaders and
Cambodian authorities. Cambodia has a population of about 15
Bearing the brunt of anti-Vietnamese feeling are ordinary
people like Tran Van Chien who lived in a ramshackle stilt house
in a 400-strong community of ethnic Vietnamese - most of them
very poor - on the bank of the Tonle Bassac River. Cambodians
call it "Yuon Village".
His sister, Tran Yaing Chang, 32, said her brother and seven
other siblings had left Vietnam 10 years ago to seek a better
life in Cambodia.
She owns a small shop and, until her brother's death, felt
Cambodia had treated her well. Her brother was married to a
Cambodian woman, who was about to deliver their first child.
"I've seen a lot of violence against the Vietnamese since
the election," she said. "I dare not complain about anything,
even though they treat us like this, because we are living in
Many ethnic Vietnamese families have lived in Cambodia for
generations, said community leader Sok Hor, 70, who moved to
Cambodia in 1981.
He said many people now say verbal abuse is so common that
he tells people to "stay at home and sleep" rather than go out
(Additional reporting by Nguyen Phuong Linh in Hanoi; Editing
by Andrew R.C. Marshall, Simon Webb, Robert Birsel)