At least some political analysts and rights workers say the recent mob killing of a Vietnamese man should be a call to the government to reform its immigration policies.
The death of Nguyen Van Chyen, 28, in a traffic accident brawl in February, followed an escalation of anti-Vietnamese rhetoric by leaders of Cambodia’s political opposition and has underscored an underlying problem of racism in Cambodia.
But there are some who say immigration reform could dampen anti-Vietnamese sentiment that has been present in Cambodia ever since Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and began a decade-long occupation of the country.
Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst, says proper legalization of immigrants, especially those from Vietnam, could help. “Because today we only know that they come illegally,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, technical superviser for the rights group Licadho, told VOA Khmer that mutual compromises between the two cultures has been difficult and led to “individual discrimination—not racism.”
“In order to prevent problems, I think Cambodia has to strengthen law enforcement, especially in immigration law and laws on nationality,” he said. In order to be naturalized as a Cambodian, a foreigner should be required to learn the Khmer language and understand Cambodia’s culture, he said.
As for the word “yuon,” which was shouted by the crowd ahead of the beating death of Nguyen Van Chyen, Am Sam Ath said the word is customary in Cambodia, though not necessarily racist.
Not everyone agrees, and there are many who say the word is a slur for Vietnamese.
The distinction is important because the word “youn” is readily used by leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said Keat Chantharith, a spokesman for the national police.
The opposition has used the word in speeches to stoke anti-Vietnamese sentiment “for political gain,” he said.
“In fact, immigration police and the national police are trying hard to fulfill their work in immigration,” he said. “They have pushed law enforcement, registration work and management work for immigrants.”
Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Rescue Party, denied the allegations, saying the opposition is merely pushing for better immigration enforcement. The party does not endorse violence, he said. “The CPP has not taken action on the issues and has been indulgent,” he said.
Peter Maguire, author of “Facing Death in Cambodia,” said the Vietnamese question is difficult in Cambodia, because the current government was installed by Hanoi, making it a political issue.
“It’s very odd to me that Cambodians are so intensely anti-Vietnamese, while they’re so forgiving of China and the Chinese, given the role that China played during the Khmer Rouge years,” he said.
Thach Ngoc Thach, head of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation, which represents Khmer minorities living in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, said Nguyen Van Chyen’s death must be thoroughly investigated whether the victim was Vietnamese or not, or a Cambodian citizen or not.