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Cambodia Saturday, 25 July, 1998, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
Playing the Vietnamese card
A Vietnamese girl in a shantytown on the outskirts of Phnom Penh
A Vietnamese girl in a shantytown near Phnom Penh
Regional analyst Alice Donald reports on one of the darker aspects of the Cambodian election campaign - the xenophobic rhetoric directed against the ethnic Vietnamese community:

Traditional animosity towards ethnic Vietnamese has reached fever pitch during Cambodia's election campaign.

Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy, in particular, have whipped up crowds with anti-Vietnamese sentiments.

Both politicians have saved their most fiery rhetoric for campaign speeches in the border area. There they have accused Vietnamese immigrants of staging a subtle "invasion," robbing local farmers of their land.

Communities gripped by fear

Prince Ranariddh: On the campaign trail
Both have repeatedly used the term "Yuon", the old Khmer word for Vietnamese - a term widely viewed as derogatory.

Observers following the opposition leaders on the campaign trail say Mr Rainsy, a highly skilled orator, has pursued the anti-Vietnamese theme most vigorously, though when he speaks to the foreign press his comments are noticeably milder.

In their defence, both politicians say they are merely trying to stop illegal immigration, protect the environment and defend human rights.

Their apologies will do little to reassure Vietnamese communities themselves, who are gripped by fear and insecurity. There have been an unknown number of attacks on ethnic Vietnamese communities and in many areas people are afraid to go out after dark.

History of chauvinism

Anti-Vietnamese chauvinism among ethnic Khmers dates back to at least the seventeenth century, when Vietnam colonised a large part of Cambodia. It is not known how many ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia now.

The rabidly anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge used to claim the figure was up to three million. Other estimates say between 200,000 and 500,000. Whatever the figure, it is clear that playing to anti-Vietnamese feeling could be a big vote winner for the opposition.

Useful scapegoats

Sam Rainsy and supporters
Their barbs have been particularly directed against Hun Sen, who is portrayed as a creature of Hanoi, having risen to power in the Vietnamese-installed government which overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

The opposition have accused Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party of registering illegal Vietnamese immigrants to vote in order to boost its support, though there is no clear evidence for this.

If the opposition's tactics do translate into votes on Sunday, it may well be because the electorate have so little faith in politicians' ability to improve their lives in other ways.

The Vietnamese provide a useful scapegoat for political leaders who have little concrete to offer the millions of Cambodians living in grinding poverty.

However, though politicians like Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy may benefit electorally by playing the anti-Vietnamese card, there is no doubt that their international standing has been diminished in the process.

Links to more Cambodia stories are at the foot of the page.


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