In a south-eastern neighbourhood of Cambodia’s capital, small street-side cafes are packed every morning with people washing their breakfast down with a coffee, playing draughts or scanning the day’s newspapers before heading to work.
But like the cafes, coffee and newspapers, the clientele are Vietnamese and they are not always quite as at home in Cambodia — even though many of them were born here — as they might appear.
“Cambodians always discriminate against us Vietnamese,” said Thien, a 28-year-old construction worker, sipping a milky iced coffee at a pavement cafe on Wednesday.
“I was born here to Vietnamese parents but the Cambodians still always call me ‘yuon’,” a derogatory term for Vietnamese people, he said.
“I feel angry or hurt, but I just try to block my ears and pretend I don’t hear what they’re saying against me.”
Centuries of history between the two neighbours, invasions, immigration and land-loss – usually to Cambodia’s detriment — mean that most people here regard the Vietnamese, who account for about 5% of the population, with suspicion if not outright hostility.
In an apparent boiling over of this long-simmering tension, an ethnic Vietnamese man was killed by an angry mob in the capital this week, sparking fierce debate in the country about racial discrimination.
Nguyen Vann Chean, who was born in Cambodia to Vietnamese parents, had come to the aid of a friend involved in a road accident on Saturday night.
With the road blocked by the smashed motorcycle, some residents became angry. When it was discovered that Nguyen was ethnically Vietnamese, a mob of about 20 people set upon the 28-year-old, The Cambodia Daily reported.
He died of his injuries in the road. Police and authorities in the commune where the killing occurred told the newspaper that the violence began after a passerby shouted “Yuon fight Khmer!”
The onlooker who police accuse of inciting the violence by yelling the ethnic slur has been arrested, and authorities say they are investigating the incident further. The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — which frequently uses anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and threatens to send Vietnamese immigrants back to Vietnam if it comes to power — immediately sought to distance itself from the news of Nguyen’s death, releasing a statement denouncing the murder.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who regularly uses the pejorative ‘yuon’, told local media that he does not believe Nguyen was killed simply for being Vietnamese.
But the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is now trying to capitalise on the murder, blaming it squarely on the opposition’s fiery rhetoric.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, agreed that the opposition’s language was potentially dangerous.
“The opposition should be extremely careful because the anti-Vietnamese sentiment has always been there, but that doesn’t justify adding more fuel to the fire,” Virak said.
“There’s a lot of bitterness between Vietnam and Cambodia in terms of Cambodia’s shrinking from a proud empire to a weaker nation, and it’s very hard for some Cambodians — Vietnam is an easy target,” he said.
The opposition often accuses the government of strongman premier Hun Sen of being Vietnamese puppets, due to the fact that after defecting from the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, Hun Sen and his allies returned alongside Vietnamese troops in 1979 to topple the Pol Pot government. Vietnamese troops remained in the country for the next decade. But even before and during the Khmer Rouge years, many Cambodians despised the Vietnamese.
At the United Nations-backed tribunal currently trying the regime’s surviving leaders, one of the charges is the genocide of the country’s ethnic Vietnamese. This month, a Vietnamese shop in Phnom Penh was looted and destroyed, with the owner saying his shop was targeted because of his ethnicity.
Construction worker Thien says he doesn’t really understand why the Vietnamese are so maligned in Cambodia.
“I don’t know about history or politics. I’m a Cambodian citizen and speak Khmer. This is where I live,” he said.
“There are traffic accidents every day in Phnom Penh,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, but the attack on Nguyen was different because “a small but deadly mob used the incident as a reason to attack and kill him,” he said.
It’s exactly this sentiment that baffles Nguyen’s widow, a Cambodian. As she told local newspaper The Cambodia Daily: “He was born in Cambodia. He lived all his life in Cambodia … but he was killed for being Vietnamese.”