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Anti-Vietnamese sentiment boils in Cambodia

Attacks on businesses highlight ethnic divide

Anti-Vietnamese sentiment boils in Cambodia

One of several Vietnamese businesses attacked in the wake of clashes between police and protesters last week (photo by Abby Seiff) 

Published: January 10, 2014 06:09 AM GMT

Updated: January 09, 2014 09:22 PM GMT

After riot police had come through their homes, dragging out friends and beating them; after those officials opened fire and killed at least four; after it was clear that all they had fought for was going to slip away, a handful of angry young men planned revenge.

It was the Chinese, Taiwanese and Singaporean factory owners who had underpaid them for years, pushing them to this brink. And it was their own Cambodian government who sent armed police to break up their protests. But after months of being told by opposition leaders how much better their lives would be without the Vietnamese taking over their jobs and land, the men who wanted revenge had a single target in mind.

At least three Vietnamese-owned businesses along the stretch of Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng boulevard, where fighting broke out between police and garment workers last week, were ransacked that Friday afternoon. During the attacks, mobs of young men chased Vietnamese employees and looted or wrecked tens of thousands of dollars worth of furniture and equipment.

“I was here when it happened. We closed the doors as we heard them come – they were shouting: this is a Yuon coffee shop. We have to destroy it,” said Yen Niet, using a common Khmer term for Vietnamese which is widely believed to be pejorative.

“There were about 10 people who made it inside, but outside there were many more.”

According to the accounts given by Niet and her co-worker – both Cambodian – and the Vietnamese owner, Sok Min, the men “destroyed everything”.

Six TVs, three bedrooms, three supply closets, 40 tables, and many kilos of coffee and food were smashed or torn apart. The place was gutted; $10,000 of life savings stolen; and people targeted, Min said.

“My brother was nearly beaten up. He climbed up to the roof to get away. The [Cambodian] female staffers ran to nearby houses for help – the protesters tried to chase them to beat them up too. If my brother hadn’t been so fast, he probably would have been killed,” he said.

For the past five and a half years, Min has run the shop without incident. He serves hundreds of customers each day and is described – by his employees and customers – as a genuinely well liked man. He pays far higher than average wages to his Cambodian staff, and his Cambodian customers often stop by two of three times a day to chat with Min, who speaks broken Khmer.

Police, who have received damage complaints from at least 20 shops, homes and factories, said they were still investigating how many of those businesses were Vietnamese. Many of the attacks were related to the protests: a clinic was razed after a rumor went out that the doctor refused to treat wounded demonstrators, homes were hit when protesters believed they were harboring snipers, and factories were attacked.

But the targeting of these Vietnamese cafes and a motorbike repair shop appears to have no other motivation than ethnic hatred.

"It is the first time I have ever seen this in my area and we will let the court decide what action to take. We are really concerned, it seriously threatens the safety and security of the people who are living in this area,” said the deputy district police chief, Chap Chantha.

About a kilometre away from Min’s shop, three construction workers fiddled with wiring inside a badly damaged shophouse yesterday. The owner was Vietnamese, they said. 

“I heard them kick down the door, break it down, and when I came out to see they had taken everything and burned it,” said a young woman working at the coffee shop next door.

The broken sign on the Vietnamese coffee shop is written in Khmer, on the back wall hang three photos of the Cambodian king, queen mother, and late king father. To all appearances, the two cafes must have looked very much alike before last Friday.

Why one shop and not the other? 

“Because my shop is a Cambodian shop, not a Yuon shop,” responded another employee. 

The attacks all happened on Friday, after security forces opened fire on protesters who had blocked a road lined with hundreds of factories as part of a larger demonstration calling for a doubling of the garment worker minimum wage of $80 a month. The brutality of the police was marked; rumors spread that in fact it was Vietnamese soldiers who had done the dirty work.

“They’re not Cambodian, they’re Vietnamese,” 25-year-old Bun Neoun, said shortly after the shootings as he lay in a hospital bed, recuperating from a bullet wound to his thigh.

“They didn’t speak at all, they just come and fight,” was his rationale. He paused and reconsidered, decided perhaps that was not the best argument, and then began insisting that they did speak.

“When they spoke, they spoke Vietnamese.”

Anti-Vietnamese sentiment has long been prevalent, with historical ties reaching back centuries. Land loss in the 1600s, French preference for Vietnamese workers and civil servants during the colonial administration, and a decade of Vietnamese occupation following the fall of the Khmer Rouge have all contributed to animosity.

When it peaks, ethnic tension has spilled into brutal violence. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese were driven from Cambodia during the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s. In the 1990s, violence against ethnic Vietnamese (both Cambodian and Vietnam nationals) again broke out, with several killed in mob violence.

Over the last nine months, meanwhile, those flames had been fanned again. The popular opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has made anti-Vietnamese sentiment a mainstay of its rhetoric.

The party publicly and vehemently denies it, saying that they are speaking simply of illegal immigration and landgrabbing during speeches outlining destruction wrought by the Vietnamese. But there can be no doubt it has served to build rage among supporters.

At every single rally, a discussion with a CNRP supporter about why they voted for the party will include a comment about how they’re going to get rid of the Yuon. It could only be a matter of time before these feelings transformed into action.

Warning of such a possibility last month, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) urged the opposition to tone down its rhetoric.

“Using the Vietnamese as scapegoats and blaming them for social and economic issues facing Cambodia not only distracts from constructive dialogue on reform, but potentially jeopardizes the safety of Vietnamese people living in Cambodia,” the group said in a statement.

In exchange for such comments, the president of CCHR, Ou Virak, has had his life threatened.

Meanwhile Min, the café owner, has since sent his wife and two young children back to Vietnam. She cannot stop crying. He cannot eat.

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