Violence in Phnom Penh during last year's election has been linked to anti-ethnic Vietnamese sentiment. Pic: AP.

By Daniel Quinlan

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
- William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

The night after Valentine’s Day, Mey Neth became a widow. Her husband, Tran Van Chien, was involved in a traffic dispute that took a horrifying turn when some bystanders yelled, “youn were fighting Khmer”.

Despite being born in Cambodia and speaking Khmer, he was still seen as something ‘other’ then Cambodian and a mob beat him to death. The pregnant Mey Neth told the Phnom Penh Post, “even though he is [ethnically] Vietnamese, he only has one life as a human. Just like Cambodians. … But unlike a human, he [was killed] like an animal.”

In a country with an infamously dysfunctional judiciary, mob justice is all too common. But the apparent racial nature of the attack is especially chilling, given the widespread anti-Vietnamese feeling in the country.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party released a statement condemning all forms of “violent culture”, but has long faced criticism for their use of the term ‘youn’, a term used for ethnic Vietnamese considered derogatory by some, as pandering to anti-Vietnamese sentiment.

On a recent trip to Cambodia, UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi said: “I am alarmed by the anti-Vietnamese language allegedly used in public by the opposition.” Last month, just before his visit, a Vietnamese-owned coffee shop was looted and the latest act feels like an escalation of an already deeply worrying trend.

One of the few local voices that have condemned this anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and violence is the president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR). For his trouble, Ou Virak received death threats and a torrent of appalling abuse over the Internet. When asked by Asian Correspondent about this latest incident, he responded, “who knows where it could lead, with these level of frustration, racism and hatred, all it needs is something to ignite it for it to get out of hand.”

(MORE: Putting aside anti-Vietnamese rhetoric in Cambodia for a ‘change’)

The context of this latest incident is not just the heightened rhetoric of a post-election struggle for power, but a long history of political discourse based on the otherness of those who are ethnically Vietnamese.

Before the orgy of murder unleashed on Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, the Lon Nol regime’s anti-Vietnamese pogroms gave a warning of the violence to come. Despite being ideological opposites, Richard Morrok in his book, The Psychology of Genocide and Violent Oppression, points both Pol Pot and Lon Nol shared “intense xenophobia” along with notions of racial purity and superiority.

The Khmer Rouge’s virulent hatred of the Vietnamese, and their potentially contaminating influence on the revolution, helped fuel the paranoid purges of even those within the party who were seen as too close to Vietnam.

Wedged between powerful neighbours, it is not surprising that there is space for local politicians to feed on – and gain political capital from – the fears of larger and more powerful neighbours. The Vietnamese invasion in 1979 and the ‘puppet regime’, which followed reinforced and fuelled these fears and resentments. This is amplified by the fact that much of what is now southern Vietnam was once under Khmer control.

Much like when the British Empire brought in Indians to help administer their newly acquired colony in Burma, when France made Cambodia a colony 1863 it imported Vietnamese to run the civil service and labour on rubber plantations. Unsurprisingly, in both cases these decisions bred resentment among the local population. Both histories are littered with the violence of mobs taking their revenge.

Though anti-Vietnamese violence sporadically continued under the Cambodian People’s Party rule after their Vietnamese patrons’ withdrew, it was largely fanned by opposition groups, unlike the state-sponsored violence of earlier regimes.

In covering protests, especially since the crackdown, bystanders have told me the security forces are ‘youn’ and that ‘Khmer would not kill Khmer’, demonstrably untrue to anyone who glances at the crime reporting of any newspaper or attends a court, let alone knows anything about this country’s history. Ironically, Thais are also quick to blame shadowy Cambodian gunmen for political violence on Bangkok’s streets, finding it preferable to believe this than the apparent truth-  their countrymen are shooting each other.

A nation is always a mess of contradictions, phantom threats and perceived interests, more often then not manufactured, or at least used by elites for their own interests.

The political establishment in my country of birth, Australia, has now spent over a decade focused on the perceived threat of people seeking asylum. People fleeing tyranny are ‘illegal’ in this strange manufactured reality – nonsense in both a verbal and legal sense – but we still maintain that giving people a ‘fair go’ is one of our national virtues.

One only has to look to Thailand to see a stark and troubling example of a nation being torn apart by its notions of otherness, legitimacy and nationhood.

In the south, a brutal insurgency continues, partly because there is little room in the country’s notion of ‘Thainess’ for the southern Muslims. Even those who share religion and language are, more then ever, deeply divided by the ‘colour protests’. Further afield, Burmese xenophobia towards Muslims has resulted in mass killings and is slowly sobering the international community from its intoxicated cheerleading for what increasingly seem to be superficial reforms.

With ASEAN integration just around the corner, ‘others’ are going to be free to move and work throughout the community. This has the potential of becoming a disaster if there is a deficit of tolerance and mutual respect in participating countries. Legitimate concerns about land use, immigration and recourses should not be left to fester but neither should they be allowed to form the basis of xenophobic scapegoating or empowering violent mobs.