[Printed in the Cambodia Daily on 27 February 2014. It was written in reply to an article by opposition leader Sam Rainsy on the previous day, titled “The Word ‛Yuon’ Is Not to Blame for Mob Killing of Vietnamese Man”.]
Sam Rainsy’s defence of the word “yuon” ignores the fact that words can change their connotation according to how they are used.
For example, Wikipedia records that in the US in the 19th century, the word “niggur” was used non-pejoratively to refer to Mexicans, Indians, French people and even white Americans as well as to people of African descent. By 1900, history had changed the offensiveness of the word as well as its spelling. Similarly, the word “Yid” to mean Jew is still used by some Jewish people but is offensive (deliberately so) when used by anti-Semites.
If “yuon” has now become offensive, it is largely because people like Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha and the CNRP regularly use it as part of their scapegoating of Vietnamese people for Cambodian problems. This scapegoating, which lumps together the Vietnamese government, the population of Vietnam and ethnic Vietnamese who are Cambodian citizens or other lawful residents of Cambodia, is racism pure and simple.
The lynching of Nguyen Yaing Ngoc on the streets of Phnom Penh was not a random act of abstract violence, and he would be just as dead if the killers had called him “Vietnamese” instead of “yuon”. He was murdered because of his ancestry, which the lynch mob had been taught to regard as evil. The CNRP did not create that idea, but it has done a geat deal to reinforce it.