Nationalists Petition Against Vietnamese Language Department

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Thel Thilen, one of the people protesting the start of a Vietnamese language department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, photographed on August 29, 2022. (Hean Rangsey/VOD)
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A small group of youth activists submitted a petition to the Education Ministry asking it to cancel the formation of a Vietnamese language department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Institute of Foreign Languages.

Raising historical territorial issues and lingering anti-Vietnamese sentiment, around 10 activists said they wanted to “avoid the inflow of foreign cultures.”

They were backed by anti-Vietnamese unionist Rong Chhun, who later said: “As we already know the yuon have nothing to be honest about with Cambodia.”

Anti-Vietnamese sentiment has been a touchstone of opposition politics for years, sparking occasional racially charged riots, though the Candlelight Party earlier this year distanced itself from the racism. In 2017, the government also began revoking official documentation held by ethnic Vietnamese residents of Cambodia, and last year evicted communities living along the shores of Phnom Penh.

Many nationalists cite last century’s ceding of Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam by French colonizers, as well as the Vietnam-backed occupation of Cambodia from the late 1970s that liberated the country from the Khmer Rouge, as justification for their prejudice. Ethnic Khmers in Vietnam often still face the suppression of their culture, and Khmer nationalists tit-for-tat resist Vietnamese culture here.

One protester, Orn Ratana, said on Monday that Vietnam had ongoing ambitions to invade Cambodia, and complained of ethnic Vietnamese living in the country.

“We have seen city governors and officials in all districts help compromise based on requests from the Vietnamese side for Vietnamese people who are illegal migrants to [allow them to] legally live,” Ratana said. “This is the point that I cannot accept for the Vietnamese language in Cambodia.”

Another, Thel Thilen, claimed that activists had gathered from 25 provinces on Monday, though there were only around 10 individuals present, and warned of “large-scale” protests if the language department went ahead.

“If the ministry denies [our request], we will put pressure in line with the law, and there could be a gathering or a peaceful demonstration, because our movement is not against the government, nor does it favor any political tendency. It is for the national benefit,” Thilen said.

“We are solving the nation’s issue in order to avoid the inflow of the foreign cultures — especially the nation that has had intentions and ambitions against Cambodia since ancient times to the present.”

Chhun, the unionist, told VOD that he wanted the ministry to consider the youth activists’ request.

“The ministry and university have to explain clearly the reasons for the formation [of the department] … because as we already know the yuon have nothing to be honest about with Cambodia.”

Education Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha declined to comment on Monday, but the ministry and Prime Minister Hun Sen have both previously said that a department to teach a neighboring country’s language has benefits.

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