Ethnic Strife Threatens Cambodian Peace Bid

As the UN gears up to manage a peaceful transition, animosity against ethnic Vietnamese has reemerged

AS his ramshackle houseboat bobs along the riverfront, Le Yang Vien ponders his future in a country where he will always be a pariah.An ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia, the 41-year-old fisherman fled successive pogroms in the 1970s under a right-wing military junta and the radical Marxist Khmer Rouge. He lived in Vietnam for four years, scrounging a living, struggling with the language, and unable to buy land. Now, the same Cambodian leaders, for years part of a coalition opposing the Vietnam-installed regime in Phnom Penh, are returning to the capital under a United Nations peace plan. Yet despite some worries, Mr. Vien says he is hesitant to leave. "As long as the UN is here to control things, I will not be frightened," says the ragged fisherman. "It is a more difficult life in Vietnam. I was born in Phnom Penh, and I want to stay." A detonator in two decades of war and revolution, the majority Khmers' simmering ethnic rage against the Vietnamese minority threatens efforts to steady postwar Cambodia. Attacks have been reported on Vietnamese in the countryside and in the Vietnamese community itself, including many clerics, craftsmen, businessmen, contract laborers, and prostitutes, diplomats and international aid workers say. "It's inborn, an animal hatred that emerges especially during periods of economic and social instability," says a Soviet diplomat in Phnom Penh. "The Vietnamese realize the danger they are facing today, and they are getting prepared."

Cambodia for Khmers For centuries, Vietnamese have been the targets of an intense Khmer xenophobia growing out of frequent invasions and economic dominance by Vietnam. Under French colonial rule, thousands of Vietnamese were brought to Cambodia to boost the bureaucracy and the economy. After a United States-backed coup overthrowing Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, the regime of Gen. Lon Nol persecuted and massacred Vietnamese and forced a mass exodus. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, Vietnamese were particularly singled out as the Marxist and Khmer fanatics killed more than 1 million people through execution, starvation, and overwork. A border dispute between Phnom Penh and Hanoi triggered the Vietnamese invasion which ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1978. Anti-Vietnamese feeling now clouds a transition period in which the UN will administer the country, disarm most of the armies, and oversee a national election in 1993. In a move to boost political prospects and counter its image as a Vietnamese puppet, the Phnom Penh regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has distanced itself from its one-time patron. In a shake-up among the ruling Communists, President Heng Samrin, a symbol of traditional relations with Vietnam, was removed as party chief. Just before Prince Sihanouk's return in mid-November, Ngo Dien, Hanoi's ambassador since 1979, returned home. Cambodian analysts say the departure was requested by Phnom Penh, which was reportedly upset over the ambassador's contacts with Vietnamese settlers in Cambodia and Hanoi's pressure to repay loans. Hun Sen also reportedly ordered home 80 military cadets training in Vietnam. Within the divided regime, longstanding links to Vietnam remain a source of friction, Cambodian and Western analysts say. "Some people want to eliminate all Vietnamese influence," says a Cambodian observer. "But others view Vietnam as a backstop if something goes wrong." Sihanouk, recently reinstalled as head of state, also was forced to rein in his enthusiasm for warming ties with Vietnam. Following a mob attack on Khmer Rouge leaders and an agreement enabling the guerrillas to return to Phnom Penh, Sihanouk canceled a visit to Vietnam. Indeed, since the peace accord was signed in October, the Khmer Rouge and right-wing political leaders have escalated the Vietnamese issue in an effort to undermine the budding alliance between Sihanouk and Hun Sen. The Khmer Rouge blamed the Vietnamese for instigating the assault on leader Khieu Samphan and later detaining and interrogating guerrilla officials, including one missing in the incident. The Khmer Rouge also contend Vietnamese troops are still in the country, despite Hanoi's claim that all its forces withdrew in 1989. Western analysts say that several thousand remaining Vietnamese advisors left last summer.

New settlers The factions also have squabbled over the number of new settlers, whom many Khmers deeply resent as symbols of Vietnamese domination. Noncommunist leader Son Sann estimated that there are 1 million Vietnamese in a country of 8 million people. That estimate was rebutted by Hun Sen, who set the minority population at 90,000. Independent estimates place the population at about 600,000, up from 500,000 in 1970. Some analysts fear that for Cambodia's Vietnamese, many of whose lives have straddled two countries, a new exodus to Vietnam may be down the road. "Once the UN leaves, Cambodia could expel the remaining Vietnamese - or worse," says a Western international aid official. As yet, however, the reemerging antipathy is not scaring off many Vietnamese. With Vietnam's economy in shambles under a US-led economic embargo, enterprising workers have flooded Cambodia to cash in on the new business boom. Troung Thanh Thu, a 21-year-old construction worker, came to Cambodia with two friends in 1986. Faced with a language problem and unable to find steady work, his buddies have long since returned to Vietnam. Yet, Mr. Thu toughs it out, struggling to learn the Khmer language and clustering with other Vietnamese immigrants for security. "Even when the [Vietnamese] troops left, I wanted to stay here," says the laborer. "I don't know when I'll go back. It's easier to find work here than in Vietnam."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.