Cambodia, a nation once traumatised by the ‘Killing Fields’ of the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, has come a long way since then in rebuilding the nation from year zero, including the holding of elections and the creation of a multi-party system. But the recent flood of hate-mail and death-threats sent to Mr Ou Virak, the president of CCHR (The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights) in the capital Phnom Penh, points to a society still dangerously divided over ethnic and racial issues.
Attacks on human rights activists in Cambodia and around the world mostly come from the agents and the guardians of the status quo — the police, army, militias and private security companies deployed by major corporations seeking to block workers rights. But the death threats in this case, delivered by phone, email and Facebook to Ou Virak, did not come from government quarters, but from the virulent opponents of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by long-serving prime minister Hun Sen.
The hate-speech was triggered by a CCHR letter to opposition leaders representing the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), urging them to stop using racist language against the Vietnamese, the largest foreign community in Cambodia.
During one election rally long-time CNRP opposition leader Sam Rainsy told a crowd in Pray Lang Kompong Thom province: “The Yuon [The Vietnamese] are taking the Khmer land to kill the Khmer people. So the Yuon come to Cambodia to spread their relatives, to form their families and then spread out. There will be so many Yuon in Cambodia that the Khmers will be the ethnic minority. The Yuon are like thieves stealing from the Cambodian people.”
The group’s letter reads: ”CCHR is disappointed that the CNRP is once again using such harmful language, which can only encourage racism towards Cambodian citizens of Vietnamese origin, as well as Vietnamese people living in Cambodia.” This letter touched a raw and racist nerve among many opposition supporters who had been fired up by rabble-rousing speeches over the “Vietnamese threat” to their nation.
Opposition campaign speeches do not distinguish between the estimated 5% of Cambodia’s population who are ethnic Vietnamese but born in Cambodia, illegal immigrants, Vietnamese companies and citizens of the neighbouring state of Vietnam. Opposition leaders tend to lump them together as the collective “Yuon”, a pejorative word for all Vietnamese, and a convenient scapegoat for Cambodia’s ills.
Ou Virak drawing attention to the universal nature of human rights that covers all groups, including the Vietnamese minority living in Cambodia, should not provoke such rabidly violent reactions in the eyes of international human rights organisations.
Virak and the CCHR have received support from abroad, but little or no encouragement from other Cambodian human rights NGOs. Virak explained to Index: “ I think there is definitely a fear by the other NGOs that they will be attacked if they express concern regarding anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, and that they won’t be able to continue doing the work that they’re doing.”
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of local rights group Licadho, has stated “I don’t like to comment on the campaign against Mr Ou Virak. I’m not at all interested in this campaign against or for.” Yet back in the early 1990s Ms. Kek told this correspondent how she was bitterly disappointed that so many of her NGO staff at Licahdo harboured resentment towards any application of human rights principles to cover discrimination against Vietnamese residents in Cambodia.
“Sadly, many of these NGOs have shown themselves to be clearly aligned with the CNRP,” said Virak, and added “a lot of people are confused between fighting repression and just fighting the CPP”.
Thun Saray another well-known NGO leader was quoted in the Phnom Penh Post: ”I worry that if we damage one political leader, it could damage their reputation. Now it is a sensitive moment, we have to be careful.”
Cambodia, sandwiched between the two far bigger nations of Thailand and Vietnam, has suffered a substantial loss of territory during the past 600 years as a result of periodic invasions from their neighbours and the decline of the Angkorian Empire. There is a perennial fear among some Khmer people that Vietnam has evil designs to swallow Cambodia, based on a mixture of folklore, paranoia, political agitation and a jaundiced grasp of history.
The burgeoning anti-Vietnamese constituency is bolstered by their reading of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia from 1979-1989, as proof of a Hanoi-orchestrated plot to colonise Cambodia. Vietnam is often depicted as the hidden power behind Hun Sen, the longest-serving prime minister in the region, who enjoys special historical links to Hanoi dating back 30 years.
On the other hand millions of Cambodians share a different memory of Vietnam’s intervention in 1979, which rescued them from the genocidal grip of the Khmer Rouge regime and the “Killing Fields” at a time when Sam Rainsy was living comfortably as a banker in Paris. An United Nations-backed special tribunal has been conducting trials in Phnom Penh since 2006 to hold the former Khmer Rouge leaders accountable for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Much older generation of Cambodians, who survived the “Killing Fields”, view Sam Rainsy’s vitriolic attacks as deeply divisive. Hun Sen and the CPP government have exploited these sentiments to the hilt in their electoral campaigns. Using the “Vietnamese card” did not mobilise votes for the opposition only — it can also be a double-edged sword.
In the first democratic election in 1993, under the auspices of the UN peacekeeping mission (UNTAC), Sam Rainsy was required to delete countless references to the “Yuon” in his prepared speech. Khmer-speaking UN official Tim Carney judged these to be inflammatory and offensive. In the 1998 election, however, Mr Rainsy was again criticised by UN experts for resorting to the same tactic. “Opposition leaders are inciting hatred and racism against the ethnic Vietnamese,” complained Thomas Hammarberg, the UN human rights envoy to Cambodia in 1998.
Rainsy, a former finance minister in the Cambodian coalition government in 1994 has always denied the many accusations of racism levelled at him, claiming that he is only expressing “legitimate patriotic concern that has nothing to do with stoking racial nationalist sentiment.”
Since the September 2013 election there has been major controversy over possible election irregularities and the opposition’s demand for a fresh election. The opposition has boycotted parliament, despite winning an impressive 55 seats, with the ruling CPP gaining 68 — a loss of 24 seats.
At the same time unrest has intensified with a nationwide strike of garment workers who are demanding a living wage and are also backing the political opposition calls for Hun Sen to resign.
Against this backdrop Ou Virak is deeply worried that “anti-Vietnamese sentiments are becoming more widespread as the population becomes increasingly frustrated with the political deadlock. “
During protests outside of the Canadia factory on Veng Sreng road on 3 January 2014, there were many reports of Vietnamese shops being targeted, looted and completely destroyed by protestors.
“These actions are being left un-condemned by the leadership of the CNRP,” says Virak “which brings up clear concerns as to what the CNRP would do if in power.”
But a deepening vein of racism tainting the opposition’s campaign to unseat the entrenched ruling elite around Hun Sen is likely to prove counter-productive in the long term. At a time when the opposition is buoyed by unprecedented popular support at the polls and is getting closer to achieving power, Vietnamese-bashing is not the best way for them to convince the sceptics and the international community that they could do a far better job than the CPP of running the country.