Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cambodia Can't Move Forward With Historical Grievances

It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around the current anti-Vietnamese rhetoric whipped up by Sam Rainsy, the Cambodia National Rescue Party leader.

As a person of Vietnamese descent who had lost relatives to the pogroms under General Lon Nol in the 1970s and the Khmer Rouge’s massacres of Vietnamese villages along the border, it has been more than unsettling to see pictures of looted Vietnamese shops.

This Vietnamese-owned coffee shop near Veng Sreng was looted on Friday. 
Everything inside smashed - Julia Wallace (@julia_wallace), Jan 5, 2014."
Born not far from the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, I grew up having relatives and neighbors both Khmer Krom and Vietnamese native to Cambodia.

Furthermore, I began my career in the US as a social worker, assisting newly-arrived Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese refugees settled into new life in America. It’s surreal to think that the many Cambodians I’ve worked with and for may have harbored resentment and animosity towards me for being Vietnamese. The most disturbing aspect is the potential long-lasting impact this may have on the Cambodian and Vietnamese American communities in the US, which have been closely linked since the 1980s.

It seems every time Mr. Sam Rainsy is criticized for anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, his supporters immediately defend 1) the usage of the word Yuon, 2) bring up Kampuchea Krom, 3) claim Khmer in Vietnam are being mistreated, 4) claim that illegal Vietnamese immigrants are taking over Cambodia, culminating in Vietnam’s supposed plan to take over Cambodia.

I’ve spent the past few months trying to figure out, and to understand, how to best approach the issues raised as the reasoning for why the Khmer can’t trust and live with the Yuon or Vietnamese.

Mr. Sam Rainsy and his supporters have been trying too hard to defend why they use this word when referring to the people of Vietnam and those of Vietnamese descent. It’s not the word itself. It’s how it’s being used, as in ‘kap Yuon’ or ‘chop the Vietnamese,’ literally. It becomes a problem only when the word Yuon is being used to dredge up historical grievances against a long-gone Vietnam, and incite hatred and animosity towards people of Vietnamese descent. A distinction has to be made between the actions of Vietnam government, past or present, versus the people of Vietnam or those who happen to be Vietnamese.

Two months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Franklin D Roosevelt put together a plan, under Executive Order 9066, that swept up and incarcerated over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descentThe suspicion that those of Japanese descent were loyal to Japan and/or worked against the United States resulted in violent racist attacks and discrimination whose impact lasting to this day.

'Jap' is a derogatory term for Japanese, in this case Americans of Japanese descent.
Photo: National Japanese American Historical Society 
Cambodia is no stranger to racist violence and racial discrimination against Vietnamese. In April, 1970 Lon Nol regime’s crazed soldiers went on Vietnamese killing sprees or kap Yuon. All told, thousands were killed and some 200,000 were expelled. The majority of these Vietnamese, like my relatives, had been born and grew up in Cambodia, the only country they knew.

I’m familiar with Khmer Krom because I grew up with and among many in An Giang and Kien Giang provinces. Most older southerners, especially in the Mekong Delta, are aware that the southern part of Vietnam once belonged to the Khmer. Those of us who were born and grew up there know that place names, such as Bạc Liêu, Sóc Trăng, Trà Vinh, Cần Thơ, Cà Mau, Mỹ Tho, Rạch Sỏi (where I grew up), are all Khmer in origin.

On top of that, many common everyday words we use are also borrowed-Khmer words, and we know it. Vietnamese word nóp for straw hut; lộp, bamboo fish trap; cá lóc, the prized snakehead fish; ghe bầu, the Mekong River transport boat that I escaped Vietnam on; bưng for pond; and hundreds more, are all Khmer in origin. However, it’s true that many Vietnamese, both in Vietnam and abroad, without the presence of Khmer people around, have become ignorant of Vietnam's genocidal past.

Southern Vietnam was taken from the Khmer people like America taking what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas from Mexico or, going further back, the entire United States of America from the native tribes; white English settlers taking of what is now Australia from the Aborigines; it was the British and the Thais that determined which country, Malaysia or Thailand, the Malay Muslims of southern Thailand should belong to. How is it that Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, Indonesia, is Malaysia? Why is the western half of the island of New Guinea, whose inhabitants are culturally and ethnically different from the majority of Indonesians, yet it is part of Indonesia? They all have been part of the history and by-products of conquests and colonization.

Should Mexico reclaim its land from the US or demand that the border be redrawn to include its historic territories? Should white Australians be demanded to leave Australia?

In the event Vietnam refuses Cambodia’s claim to its historic territories, should Cambodia go to war with Vietnam? Would Prime Minister Sam Rainsy do it? Would Cambodians take up arms to engage border guerrilla war against Vietnam? Should Cambodia take Vietnam to ‘International Court’ or the United Nations to demand its land back? What’s the likelihood of being listened to, let alone winning?

Vietnam is a communist state whose human rights record is not the best in the world, to put it mildly, and has been known to arrest and jail bloggers and writers who speak up for democracy. There’s room for debate, and demand for better policies regarding all of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, not just Khmer Krom.

Given that the Khmer Krom may not have been well-treated in Vietnam, one thing for sure is that in the past 50 years there have not been massacres or attempts to expel Cambodians from Vietnam by the current Communist or the former US-backed regimes.

Here’re some statistics and anecdotal information to compare Khmer in Vietnam and Vietnamese in Cambodia: According to the CIA “World Fact Book,” ethnic Vietnamese make up 5% of Cambodia population of 15 million people. An estimated 600,000 persons of Vietnamese descent are in Cambodia, but there’re no precise numbers as to how many are native to Cambodia, legal or illegal immigrants.

Khmer, as an ethnic group, makes up 1.5% of Vietnam's population of 92 million people or close to 1.3 million. Khmer is the 4th largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam. Again, there're no numbers given for how many are citizens, native to Vietnam, and/or whether there're Cambodian immigrants, legally or illegally, in Vietnam.

Those who’re born in Vietnam to Vietnamese nationals (there’s a difference between nationality and ethnicity) are counted as Vietnamese citizens, but the same thing cannot be said for Vietnamese in Cambodia. Technically, and legally, they should be counted as Cambodian citizens, but the reality is a lot more complicated.

Khmer Krom people's lands have been seized and grabbed by Vietnamese government. However, poor Vietnamese have also had their lands grabbed and seized. It seems this is an ongoing problem in Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, and many other countries where corruption is rampant and the civil rights of the poor are not protected. 

Much has been mentioned, especially among Khmer online, that Khmer Krom are denied their heritage, culture and language. However, this is not my experience. I grew up spending time in a wat or pagoda where one of my uncles was a Cambodian monk, listening to Khmer music on the radio, as well as attending festivities where Khmer music and culture were on full display.

Here's a sample of Khmer radio broadcast from Mekong Delta’s largest province, Cần Thơ, which is a Khmer word in itself.

A dance troupe from Kien Giang Province, where 
I grew up, performing on Cần Thơ TV Khmer program

Every province in the Mekong Delta has either a TV or radio, or both, program in Khmer. Does Cambodia have TV or radio programs for its Vietnamese population?

As for why Khmer is not the language of Vietnam? Well, because the country is called Vietnam. I agree that Vietnamese who live in Cambodia legally should not only learn to speak Khmer, but also Cambodian history. Cambodia is their country. For comparison, in America, an estimated 40 million US residents speak Spanish either as the second or primary language even though English is understood to be the official language.

Lastly, many Khmer have pointed out that the mere fact Khmer Krom are called ‘Miênis an indication of discrimination and exclusion. In fact, that’s not only inaccurate, but also absurd. Khmer Krom have been officially known as ‘người Khmer'’ or ‘'Khơ-me’. So how did the term Miên come into being? Blame it on the Chinese who originally called the Khmer 高棉 people, which translated into Cao Miên. They had conflated the Khmer people with the highland Mien of China. It's similar to Christopher Columbus who set sail for the 'New World,' in search of riches in 'East Indies'; when he and his crew encountered the natives of what is now the Americas, who looked dark, non-European, Columbus called them ‘Indians.'

So how are the Khmer Krom doing in Vietnam? Not that great, if they’re poor, but not living in fear of having their businesses looted and burned by their neighbors. Vietnam hasn't experienced the kind of upheaval and political instability that could lead to interracial ethnic violence like that in Cambodia under Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and now. 

The most striking thing about the anti-Vietnamese sentiment shared among many Khmer is that it’s a one-sided affair. The majority of Vietnamese, both in Vietnam and abroad, are oblivious to what’s going on in Cambodia and with the Cambodians. Many, unfortunately, are completely ignorant of the history of what had happened to the Khmer.

Anti-Vietnamese rhetoric makes no distinction between Vietnamese native to Cambodia, legal immigrants, and those who may reside in Cambodia illegally (my frustration extends to foreign journalists whose reporting often fails to mention that not ALL Vietnamese in Cambodia are immigrants).

My take on the citizenship and immigration is this:
1. Vietnamese native to Cambodia should be accorded all the rights and privileges Khmer, Cham and other Cambodian citizens have.

2. Those who’ve legally resided in Cambodia ten years or longer should be provided a path to Cambodian citizenship if they so desire. This should be a formal legal process. This process should include some form of requirement of proof of residency, such as business or land ownership, deeds, etc.

3. Adults who've resided in Cambodia less than ten years, and illegally, should be asked to leave. If they wish to reside in Cambodia legally, again, there should be a formal legal process for them to petition.

Corruption, such as the selling and buying of immigration documents, and the lack of a formal legal process may hinder the implementation of the above, but as a ‘democracy,’ the rule of law should be above all. Persons of Vietnamese descent should not be blamed for what’s not working with the government of Cambodia.

I recently asked two young Cambodian Americans, both US citizens, whether Vietnamese native to Cambodia are entitled to Cambodian citizenship. They quickly responded, “No, because they’re not Khmer.” I said, “With your reasoning, the US government should not have given you US citizenship then.” They both realized the similarity, sheepishly laughed, but stood their ground insisting that Cambodia belongs to Khmer people. Just imagine all 276,667 Cambodians in America are being asked to leave the US because they're not 'American.'

Again, Vietnamese who know history or are informed know that southern Vietnam was taken from the Khmer. We also know that central Vietnam was taken from the Cham people, of which there’re plenty of reminders, memorialized in songs and poetry. However, not unlike people in many countries, take the US for example, ordinary people are not preoccupied with how their countries came into being.

Land-grabbing is a worldwide phenomenon where the poor are being dispossessed of their land and livelihood. It is enabled by corrupt government officials, or the government itself, in collusion with powerful domestic or foreign corporations.

“The government is seizing (our land) it. They say it’s all
about investing in social-welfare projects, but I call it stealing"

Land-grabs in Vietnam, The Economist, March 16, 2013
Land concessions are given to foreign companies, not the people where those foreign companies are located or local residents who happen to share the same ancestry as the foreign companies' owners. It should be pointed out that local, in this case Cambodian, corrupt officials also stand to profit from these land concessions.

Vietnam wants to annex Cambodia. How? What for? Communist Vietnam is struggling to govern within its own territories, not to mention the constant threat posed by China, which has laid claim to the entire South China Sea. Furthermore, given the state of current geopolitical reality, invading and occupying another country are no longer the norm nor tolerated, unless it’s done by the superpowers like the US under the guise of ‘war on terrorism.’ In order words, Vietnam can't and won’t invade Cambodia for the sake of taking land or to obliterate Khmer people or culture. It’s pure paranoia to believe that Vietnam will find reason to invade Cambodia.

On the other hand, however, Vietnam, not unlike other Asian countries, does see Cambodia as a market to expand its economy and as a source of natural resources. 

Regarding Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia after having driven out the Khmer Rouge, yes, I do agree 10 years were far too long. By nature, the natives always feel resentful of foreign occupying powers regardless of the original intent and purpose.

Bigger threats to the livelihood of the average Cambodians might be its own integration into the global market. Given only 50% of its current workforce has finished primary school, low-paying jobs continue to be the only things available. When ASEAN becomes a regional bloc in 2015, more companies and professionals from other Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, will come to Cambodia. Unfortunately, Cambodia does not have companies that could expand to other countries and most Cambodians lack the necessary skills and training to go work in other countries freely, other than as low-paying contracted manual laborers, like maids, fishing boat crews and construction workers.

Electoral reforms are needed, so are concerted efforts to stamp out corruption and enforce the laws, including immigration, that are already on the book. Blaming the Yuon for Cambodia's socio-economic and political problems essentially let those in power, current or future government, off the hook. It also distracts from the urgent need to improve the levels of education and training to enable young Cambodians to compete in the ASEAN and global market.

Historical grievances can't and won't move the Khmer people forward. They only drag Cambodia back to the past.