Vietnamese flee 'cleansing' by Khmer Rouge: History is repeating itself as the Cambodians turn on their traditional scapegoats

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The Independent Online
'I WILL never return to Cambodia,' said Dang Yang Chuong, a Vietnamese man on board a ferry from Phnom Penh to Vietnam. He was a carpenter who lived with a community of Vietnamese fishermen on the Tonle Sap lake in north-western Cambodia.

Last month he heard 38 of his countrymen being slaughtered by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. They were shot in their boats and in the water as they tried to swim away, and the shots echoed over the lake. Now Mr Dang is one of thousands of Vietnamese who are fleeing a cold-blooded Khmer Rouge plan to 'cleanse' Cambodia of ethnic Vietnamese. 'Most Vietnamese will leave,' he said. 'They are going by boat, by bus. Before we could do business with the Cambodians who liked us, and ignore those who hated us. Now it has all changed.'

Yesterday more than 1,000 Vietnamese boats, grouped into flotillas for safety, were heading downriver from the Tonle Sap towards Vietnam. These are the Vietnamese 'boat people' of the 1990s - returning to Vietnam to escape oppression, rather than fleeing as they did in the 1980s. United Nations forces are providing protection for the 5,000 people on board the boats after a dramatic rise in anti-Vietnamese violence.

About 100 Vietnamese have been killed in seven attacks in Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge lays its brutal agenda for 'ethnic cleansing' before the Cambodian people. What worries UN officials most is that many Cambodians appear to approve of the Khmer Rouge terror campaign against the 200,000 to 500,000 ethnic Vietnamese who live in the country.

'There is very little condemnation of these massacres,' said Eric Falt, a UN spokesman. 'There seems to be enjoyment at these Vietnamese leaving. It seems to be the will of the (Cambodian) people.' The UN was horrified that even Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the official head of state of Cambodia, said that 'the only reasonable alternative left to (the Vietnamese) is to leave Cambodia straight away and go and live in Vietnam'.

Cambodians have been hostile to the more industrious Vietnamese for centuries. Large chunks of former Cambodian territory have been swallowed by Vietnam, and in Cambodian folklore the ogres are always Vietnamese. Throughout history the Vietnamese have been made scapegoats for Cambodia's domestic problems. In 1970 the US-backed government of General Lon Nol looked on as hundreds, possibly thousands, of Vietnamese were murdered in a pogrom. From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot blamed the failings of his disastrous regime on 'Vietnamese provocateurs', killing as many as he could find.

History is starting to repeat itself. After a few scattered attacks against Vietnamese last year the Khmer Rouge began a more concerted campaign last month, murdering the 38 on the Tonle Sap three weeks ago, then killing eight in a village near the lake. The Khmer Rouge is circulating leaflets warning the Vietnamese who live around the lake to leave.

Some have moved to Phnom Penh, but on Monday night the capital was shaken by explosions as grenades were thrown into four Vietnamese cafes and brothels, leaving two dead. Many Vietnamese are now getting ready to leave if they can. But many of the ethnic Vietnamese living in the provinces were born in Cambodia, speak the language and are married to Cambodians. They would be eligible to vote in the elections and to get a Cambodian passport. They have nothing to return to in Vietnam, where jobs are short already. However, their lighter skin colour and finer facial features make them instantly recognisable to a Cambodian.

Man Thi Deow, who has seven children, has spent her life in Cambodia. Two weeks ago the Khmer Rouge abducted her husband and a child. She decided to flee with her family.

'Pol Pot will kill more and more, so I want to go to Vietnam with my children,' she said, sitting in a small boat with a thatch roof and some incense burning for her husband, who she presumes is dead. 'But I have no relatives in Vietnam. No house, no land. I will just be a wanderer there.'

(Photograph omitted)