The election campaign sweeping the country has not made it to Neang Sorn’s home, nor to any of her neighbors, in this floating village tethered to the banks of the Tonle Sap river on the edge of Phnom Penh.
“The CPP has never come to give us rice or kramas or anything. No CPP working group has come to talk to us. No one from the Cambodia National Rescue Party [CNRP] has come either,” she said.
But for Ms. Sorn, and probably many other members of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese community, the choice of who to vote for on July 28 is an easy one.
“Most Vietnamese support the CPP because we see that they have made it easy for us to live here,” she said.
While the CPP has historic ties to Vietnam for providing the army that toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, opposition politicians have long used anti-Vietnamese sentiment among ethnic Khmer voters to rally support against the ruling party.
The opposition also has long accused the government of a lax immigration policy that has made the country inviting to immigrants from its larger neighbor.
Estimates on the actual number of ethnic Vietnamese citizens vary widely. According to a 2010 Ministry of Planning commune survey, ethnic Vietnamese number about 90,000, while the U.S. CIA’s World Fact Book, which is not an authoritative source, estimates the figure to be about 5 percent of the country’s 15.2 million population, or more than 700,000 people, making them the single largest ethnic group.
While the CNRP has promised to tone down its campaign rhetoric against the presence of Vietnamese in Cambodia, the harsh anti-Vietnamese platform previously taken by opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have the country’s ethnic Vietnamese firmly in the ruling party’s corner.
Som Sophat, 58, whose Vietnamese name is Nguyen Van Hung, was born in Cambodia, fled during the Lon Nol regime and returned in 1988. He said he was granted official citizenship in 1993, just in time to vote in the country’s first democratic elections.
As the owner of an air-conditioner repair shop near Monivong Bridge, he has been a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who he refers to simply by his honorific “Samdech,” and is a longtime member of the ruling CPP.
“Samdech allows Vietnamese people to make a good living. Samdech has a good policy because he does not force the deportation of Vietnamese,” he said, adding that this was in stark contrast to what he believed to be the opposition party’s policies.
“The CNRP doesn’t care about the Vietnamese because if they win the election, they will deport Vietnamese people and make our lives difficult,” he said, sitting in his small cement home, which is surrounded by cafes, motorepair shops and lumber depots, all with signs written in both Vietnamese and Khmer.
Son Chhay, a National Assembly candidate for the CNRP in Phnom Penh, said that a concerted effort has been made by the opposition party this year to stress the implementation of existing immigration laws, rather than singling out Vietnamese immigrants, illegal or otherwise.
“As the opposition, we are careful that when we mention illegal migrants, we take our language more responsibly,” he said, adding “I think even in the past there has been misunderstanding about our policy, which is for respecting the law of the country, rather than being a racist stance.”
However, Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese voters are justifiably wary of the opposition party’s intentions if they are voted into power.
In past campaigns, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha repeatedly promised to rid the country of what they said was the menacing influence of the “yuon”—a term considered derogatory by some when referring to Vietnamese people—at all levels of society.
“If I win this election, I will send the yuon immigrants back,” Mr. Rainsy told an audience at Wat Phnom while on the campaign trail in 1998. “The government works for the yuon…. If the Sam Rainsy Party wins, there will be no more yuon puppets,” he added.
During that same campaign Mr. Sokha, then the secretary-general of the now-defunct Son Sann party, sent out a similar message.
“If we win, we will send all the yuons to Vietnam,” he told a crowd of hundreds in Takeo province.
The opposition’s tendency to play to fears born from Cambodia’s history of conflict with Vietnam has in many ways undermined its effort to lead a truly democratic movement in the country, said an NGO worker who has been working with Vietnamese and Khmer communities along the border for the past decade and asked not be named so his organization would not be seen as taking sides on such a sensitive issue.
“It is a shame that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have used anti-Vietnamese feelings to promote their political interests because they also say they want to be a democratic alternative,” he said.
Mr. Chhay has himself been outspoken about the threat of too many Vietnamese immigrants in the country. In a 2002 interview, he said: “Without serious action by the government, Cambodia will soon move closer to a deeper problem: We [Cambodians] will be a minority in our own land,” a statement that he said he still stands by today.
“I think it is the government’s responsibility to protect the border against so many illegal migrants. The Vietnamese seem to receive a privileged [immigration] policy, from the Vietnamese government in 1980s until the present time,” he said Tuesday, referring to the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which first promoted Mr. Hun Sen to prime minister in 1985.
But while the opposition insists that ethnic Vietnamese who are already naturalized Cambodian citizens have nothing to fear from a CNRP-led government, Quoc Thai, 31, who has lived in Cambodia for 10 years, says that he knows how the opposition leaders really feel about ethnic Vietnamese citizens like him.
“Sam Rainsy has made it clear that he hates Vietnamese, so how can we vote for the opposition party,” Mr. Thai said at a coffee shop across from a bus station where he sells tickets.
“We support the CPP because if the CPP are elected, we can continue to live in Cambodia,” he said, adding that his own family’s integration into Cambodian society—his mother is a rice wholesaler at O’Russei market—has been smooth under the administration of Mr. Hun Sen.
And while widespread resentment toward ethnic Vietnamese persists in Cambodia today, violent manifestations of such feelings have eased significantly since the 1990s, when Vietnamese were the target of attacks and mob killings during times of political tension.
In the early 1970s, the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime implemented pogroms aimed at ridding Phnom Penh of Vietnamese influence, killing hundreds of ethnic Vietnamese and forcing thousands more to flee back to Vietnam.
Those ethnic Vietnamese who remained in Cambodia were targeted for mass extermination once the Khmer Rouge took full control of the country; charges that the Khmer Rouge executed a full-fledged genocide against ethnic Vietnamese is among the charges yet to be heard in Case 002 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. The Khmer Rouge continued to pillage what it said were Vietnamese villages up until the early 1990s.
In separate incidents in September 1998, mobs killed four ethnic Vietnamese in what were believed to be racially motivated attacks. Officials with the U.N. and the Vietnamese Embassy said the violence was related to anti-Vietnamese rhetoric being used by opposition politicians during protests of the previous month’s election results.
But while violence against ethnic Vietnamese is not currently a pressing concern, and the opposition party has now toned down its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, the thinly veiled threats of a “foreign” influence on society continue to be part of Mr. Sokha’s stump speeches in this year’s campaign.
Kim Sophal, 62, who was sitting quietly on a bench listening to a hand-held radio along a narrow concrete street in Prek Pnov commune’s Kandal village, with the floating village just a few hundred meters away, said he too is worried about the influx of Vietnamese into the country.
“I am worried about more Vietnamese coming in because it will affect the economy. There won’t be jobs for Cambodians. Also, when more of them have citizenship they can control the mandate and vote for someone who supports only their interests,” Mr. Sophal said.
Village chief Chhim Phally said that there were 57 ethnic Vietnamese families in his village with citizenship, and dozens of others who had received permission to “temporarily” live on the banks of the river below his stilted wooden home.
“It’s not a problem because they just come here peacefully,” he said, noting that the main occupation of the ethnic Vietnamese villagers has shifted from fishing to construction work as fish stocks in the Tonle Sap have been steadily depleted.
“For life, [the presence of Vietnamese immigrants] is not difficult. But for business, it presents a challenge,” he said.