Two Anti-Vietnamese Youth Nationalists Arrested

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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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Two anti-Vietnamese youth nationalists who petitioned against the formation of a Vietnamese language department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in August were arrested Tuesday as they attempted to bring their protests to a public plaza.

Around 8:30 a.m., five activists met at City Hall to ask permission to protest in Freedom Park, where they planned to picket the language department along with the issuance of permanent residency cards for ethnic Vietnamese people, protester Om Chhoum told VOD.

Officials refused the request, and after about two hours of negotiations, the group headed toward Freedom Park to host a press conference.

They didn’t make it far: Authorities handcuffed protesters Om Chhoum and Thel Thilen at the City Hall gate and packed them into a car as the three others escaped. Chhoum was released shortly afterward in Dangkao district, while Thel Thilen was sent to Kandal police on unrelated stolen property charges dating back to June 2021.

The group vowed that the arrests will not stop them from protesting what they have previously referred to as “the inflow of the foreign cultures.”

“We continue our demands against the Vietnamese language and also the permanent residency cards for Vietnamese immigrants,” said protester Khon Raksmey. “We already spoke to the City Hall. … We are waiting for this moment.”

Anti-Vietnamese racism is longstanding in Cambodia and harkens back to the ceding of Kampuchea Krom during the French colonial period, as well as a decadelong, Vietnam-backed government following the ouster of the Khmer Rouge. Former opposition party the Cambodia National Rescue Party regularly played into the rhetoric, but most ethnic Vietnamese people enjoy few rights or documentation in Cambodia.

In August, the Ministry of Interior called on institutions around the country to recognize the use of permanent residency cards for ethnic Vietnamese people — one of the youth nationalists’ points of contention. It is not clear how many ethnic Vietnamese actually have the cards.

“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,” Thilen told VOD last month.

Neither the Kandal provincial police commissioner nor the Phnom Penh Municipal Police could be reached for comment. 

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of human rights group Licadho, pointed out in a phone call to VOD that while Thilen’s charges date back to 2021, he was arrested while attempting to protest.

“It’s interesting that they were arrested after they submitted the petition putting out demands,” Sam Ath said. “This is a threat to interrupt youth activities involved in social work.”

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