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Friday, 12 February 2010

The “Yuon” controversy: Facts and fictions

By Khmerization
6th February, 2010

I have been called a revanchist and an ultra-nationalist in the past for writing articles in defence of the Cambodian territorial integrity. I hope that this time, with a fine-tuned tone and less rhetoric, I won’t be labelled a racist for writing this article in defence of the word “Yuon”.

In light of an increase in the misunderstanding of the etymology of the word “Yuon”, in particular by foreigners, and the recent controversy generated by the Phnom Penh Post’s definition of the word “yuon“ as “a racist epithet for the Vietnamese“, it is imperative that this term be clarified and defined once and for all.

The word “Yuon” is a neutral term the Khmer people use to call the Vietnamese people. It is neither racist, pejorative nor derogatory. It is a xenonym the Khmer people used to denote the Vietnamese people, the same as the xenonym “Mien” the Vietnamese people use to call the people from Cambodia, instead of the word “Khmer” the Cambodians use to call themselves.

In spite of widespread misunderstanding of the semantics and etymology of the word “Yuon”, especially the demonisation and pejorativisation of the word, especially by foreigners, the use of the word itself is defendable.

An epigraphical defence

The Khmer people used the term “Yuon” for eons, long before the word “Vietnam” came into being, at least since the 9th century, while the word Vietnam only came into being in the 19th century. Before then, Vietnam was known as Annam (Annamese), Tonkin (Tonkinese) or Cochin-China (Cochin-Chinese).

Some speculate that the term “Yuon” is probably a cognate of the Chinese word “Yueh” that denotes the Vietnamese people, a term brought into the Khmer terminology by Chou Takuan, the famed Chinese emissary to the Khmer court at Angkor in the 13th century. Others claimed that Khmer inscriptions and many scholars and academics, past and present, can attest to the semantics and etymology of the word “Yuon”. According to Prof. Vong Sotheara, lecturer of Khmer History and Epigraphy at Royal University of Phnom Penh, the “Yuon” epithet had appeared in the Khmer epitaphs as an ethnonym since the 9th century. In an e-mail to Khmerization, Prof. Vong Sotheara said and I quote “As far as I observed from inscription studies, the word Yuon had appeared in the Khmer writing during the 9th century as an ethnonym. But at that time, Khmer ancestors wrote as 'Yvan' by using subscript 'va' instead of vowel 'u' or 'ou'. Then in Preah Khan inscription of Virakumara, a son of Jayavarman 7, wrote about Vietnamese King who attended a sacred water ablution for the Khmer King's offering”.

Dr. Sophal Ear, a professor at a U.S Naval University and Mr. Kenneth T. So, a rocket scientist with Boeing, authors of a detailed paper on the xenonym of the word “Yuon”, had come across the writings of Prof. George Coedes (1908-1968), the French expert on the Southeast Asian classical study who wrote extensively on Khmer history, who had found an earlier evidence of the word “Yuon” inscribed in Khmer on a stele dating to the time of the Khmer King Suryavarman I (1002-1050.) Mr. Bora Touch, a prominent lawyer who did extensive research on Khmer history and politics, had also claimed to have come across the works of Prof. Georges Coedes. Mr. Bora Touch wrote “As far as the surviving recorded evidence shows, the word yuon appears in Khmer inscriptions dating back to the reign of King Suryavarman I (1002-1050), an immediate predecessor to the Angkor Wat temple builder Suryavarman II (see Inscription K105 or Coedes, Inscriptions du Cambodge, K Hall, Maritime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia (1985) etc).”

Dr. Sophal Ear and Mr. Kenneth T. So wrote that many prominent French historians had also used the word “Yuon” extensively in their books. They claimed that Mr. Adhémar Leclère, a Colonial French Governor of Cambodia, who had lived 25 years in Cambodia, used the word Yuon throughout his book “Histoire du Cambodge depuit le 1er siècle de notre ère” (Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1914: 99, 413, 432, 434, 435, and 469).

A scholarly defence

In early October 2009, many scholars and historians, the majority of them Westerners, had actively debated online the etymology of the word “Yuon”. Many had come out in the defence of the word, claiming that it is a neutral term with no pejorative, derogatory and racist connotations as the word has been used by many countries throughout the South East Asian region. The word “Yuon”, they asserted, had been widely used as a neutral term by the Burmese, Laotians, the Thais and many ethnic and tribal groups in Cambodia and Vietnam such as the Cham Muslims, Bahnar, Stieng, Jarai and Radé people as well.

Thérèse Guyot, Ph'D Candidate from EPHE, claimed that the word “Yuon“ had been widely used by the ethnic and tribal people of Cambodia and Vietnam to refer to the Vietnamese people. “In my current study of legal Cham archives, (dated from the 18th-19th centuries), the term yuon designates kinh (Vietnamese) people, with no pejorative meaning at all, as the Annam people (Cham people use "yuon klap" when they talk about Tonkin people)…….Cambodians, but also Bahnar, Stien, Jorai and Radé people as well, use the same word, or a derived form of it (juon), when they speak about kinh people”, she wrote.

Mr. Liam Kelly, from the University of Hawaii, claimed the word “yuon” had been used by the Burmese to describe the Vietnamese as well. “I think it is in Burmese as well - no wait, did the Burmese refer to the Chinese as yuon?”, Mr. Liam Kelley wrote.

Dr. Philip Taylor, professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University, asserted that the term “Yuon“ is not pejorative. “I would say that as used in in many mien tay (Khmer) contexts, they (the term Yuon and Mien) are not uniquely pejorative”, he wrote.

Dr. Steve Hedder, from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London who is an expert on Khmer affairs and can speak Khmer fluently, asserted that the word “Yuon” had been used in pre-colonial times and had only been racialised and pejorativised only after the invention of the word “Vietnam” by the French colonialists in the 19th century. “Generally speaking, Khmer, Yuon, Siem (Thai) and Khloeng (Indian) were used in pre-colonial times colloquially, non-pejoratively and non-racially. With the colonial-era invention of Vietnam, Thailand and India, these words were used in official parlance, but very rarely in common speech, and without pejorative connotations,” he said.

The pejorativisation of the word “Yuon”

Dr. Hedder asserted that the word "yuon" had only been considered as pejorative and derogatory by the Vietnamese people during the Sihanouk and Nol Lon regimes from the 1940s to the 1970s. “The racialisation or pejorativisation of Yuon in Khmer became increasingly pronounced in Sihanoukist and Republicanist discourse, while not be so attached to the rarified term Vietnam, still largely reserved for officialese”, he wrote.

Dr. Hedder also claimed that it was the Vietnamese-installed government of Mr. Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, from 1979 onward, that the word “Yuon” had been propagated as a pejorative term. “The Vietnamese-crafted People's Republic of Kampuchea, having no choice but to curry favour with its mentors and protectors, went along with Vietnamese insistence at accepting the pejorativisation of Yuon as an accomplished and irreversible fact, and so tried to propagate (the) use of Vietnam beyond official circles, but with limited effect, and also rendering refusal to accept this top-down, foreign-state-dominated-and-imposed way of talking an act of nationalist defiance”, he asserted.

He wrote that the Cambodians have many prejudicial terms to describe the Vietnamese people. “I would finally point out that beyond Yuon there are a number strictly prejudicial terms for Vietnamese, eg, nheung (from the Vietnamese surname Nguyen), skeidaung (coconut husk), in contrast to which Yuon remains relatively tame”, he said.

Mr. Bora Touch, however, put the blames squarely on UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia), the UN body responsible for peacekeeping in Cambodia from 1991-1993, for propagating the racialisation or the pejorativisation of the word “yuon” to the point of almost criminalising it. “Yasushi Akashi, the head of UNTAC, was hypnotised by the foreign “experts” on Cambodia to the degree of, reportedly, speechlessness, when a Khmer journalist used yuon to refer to Vietnamese when asking him questions. Akashi’s foreign advisers even discussed criminalising the use of the term”, claimed Mr. Bora Touch.


Through inscriptions, historical evidences and scholarly testimonies, it is clear that the term “Yuon” is not pejorative, derogatory or “a racial epithet for the Vietnamese” in any way. Those, especially foreigners, who claimed that the word “Yuon” is “a racist epithet for the Vietnamese” either through ignorance, chicanery or obfuscation, have done so, intentionally or unintentionally, with the aim of creating racial conflicts and demonising the Khmer people vis-à-vis the Vietnamese people.

So the claims that the word “yuon” is pejorative, derogatory and has racist connotations are fictions.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I hope some ignorant foreigners will understand the word "yuon" and stop accusing Cambodians of being racist and pejorative toward the Vietnamese. They called us "Mien", which means "barbarians", and we don't get offended. So I don't see any reason why they should get offended when we call them "Yuon" which we used for more than 1000 years.

Anonymous said...

Make yourself necessary to someone.........................................

Anonymous said...

Yasushi Akashi, the head of UNTAC,
was influenced by ex King,Sihanouk.

Albeiro Rodas said...

I am very surprise that Western foreigners could state that the expression "Yuon" is racist. Several Western scholars like David Chandler in his History of Cambodia, clarify it. According with my own observation, those who accuse such expression as "racist" are the same Vietnamese people living and working in Cambodia, especially those who lives in Vietnamese ghettos (and they are technically real.) As anybody living in a ghetto is so sensitive to any expression referring to them, the effect is that the ancient "Yuon" expression get the impression that it is racist. Nobody in modern Israel will get offended if he/she is called "Jew" and non US Citizen would be too offended today if he/she is called "Gringo" in Latin America (many refers to themselves as "Gringo" now as a nice fashion but unknowing the story behind.) But during the reign of antisemitism in Europe, to be called "Jew" was almost mortal. The idea that "Yuon" is racist comes from Cambodian-Vietnamese people - we can say Khmer-Yuon people - who feel victims of racism at all. Now well, the word "Yuon" is widely used in Cambodia. Living in this country for a decade already, speaking a fair Khmer, the word "Yuon" is of popular used in different contexts that are not necessary racists. I can witness myself that Khmer people around me (including Khmer-Yuon people), speak about "Mahob Yuon, Piasa Yuon, Kut-sok Yuon," etc.
The reflection is that Khmer-Vietnamese people should integrate into the Cambodian society. It is about it.

Albeiro Rodas said...

Another thing: I feel real offended when any Cambodian call me BARANG. Yes, it is a real racist expression for many reasons and not like Yuon. A Yuon is a Yuon anyway, but I am not a Barang at all. It means "Frenchman". France for me is a very distant and odd country. I have been just once in France, a couple of hours in the Charles de Gaulle Airport in my travel Bogotá - Paris - Bangkok - Phnom Penh. It has been my only contact with the Barang Republic so far. My country, Colombia, is far from France as Cambodia. So, why any guy dare to call me "French"? Surely Cambodians in Colombia will be called without doubt "Chinese". Therefore, friends of The Phnom Penh Post, please denounce this very racist term to Western foreigners in Cambodia as soon as possible (and include the impersonal expression CHUNCHIET too.

Khmerization said...

Dear Albeiro my friend,

Thanks for clarifying about the word "yuon" to our foreign friends who are misinformed about the meaning and the usage of the word. It is very good for a Westerner to clarify such a controversial word to his foreign friends.

About the word "Barang", I am so sorry to hear that you feel offended by its reference. It is true that the word "barang" means "French". However, this term is not racist or pejorative/derogatory in anyway. In fact it is a very nice way of describing all "white" foreigners.

First let me explain the origin/etymology of the word "Barang" which the Thais called "Farang". In the old days, 19th century, the Cambodian language does not have the word to describe the "white people". When Cambodia was colinised by France in 1863,the French people were the first white men the Cambodian have ever seen and they called them "Barang" or "Barang Sess", a derivative of the French words Francais or Francaise. After that, we call any "white people" or anyone who look like French people "Barang" because we don't have any other term to describe them.

Since then, the word "Barang" has become a colloquial term for any white men, but again, we dont' eamn to be racist or pejorative ot derogatry to ward to white person we called "Barang". It is just a common term we used to call the white men and it is very respectful.

The word "Barang" now, even it derived from the words Francais/Francaise doesn't mean "Frenchman" only. Now we call any white man "Barang", but in a very respectful way, not in any disrespectful way. Like I said, in Thailand the Thai people call all white foreigners "Farang" too and it is not racist or derogatory.

Please rest assured my friend, when people call you "barang", they did so in a very respectful way. No racist, pejorative or derogatory connotations involved.