Khmer Language and the Term "Yuon"


by Bora Touch
Sydney, Australia

Note: The position taken by Mr. Bora Touch is also endorsed by the Khmer Institute.

Although Cambodians have used the term "yuon" for centuries to refer to their Vietnamese neighbors, in the early 1990s under UNTAC, use of the term suddenly became taboo. Foreign academics dubbed it racist and unjustly condemned Cambodian usage of the word; all the while, they fail to point out that there is no other word in the Khmer language for Vietnamese. One of the most recent examples of the continued ignorance on the part of foreign academics concerning this term appeared in a Washington Times editorial dated 13 September 02 (see below). In his commentary regarding Cambodia's current political environment, an academic named David Roberts chastises democratic politician Sam Rainsy, calling him a "virulent racist" and "a disappointed authoritarian in the Cambodian tradition".  Nothing is mentioned of Mr. Rainsy's record of promoting human and labor rights, democratic principles, transparency in government, environmental protection, and the rule of law in Cambodia. Nothing is mentioned about the fact that he is internationally recognized for his efforts to bring freedom, democracy, and justice to Cambodia. Simply because Mr. Rainsy chooses to use the Khmer word for Vietnamese, Roberts labels him a "racist manipulator who [has] little or no interest in [his] country".

To these foreign "experts" on Cambodia, the term "yuon" is considered to be contemptible and derogatory. According to Roberts, it has a savage connotation. Not only has Roberts fallen victim to his ignorance of the Khmer language, but others have as well. Mr. Yasushi Akashi, the head of UNTAC, was reportedly disturbed to the extent of speechlessness when a Cambodian journalist used the word "yuon" in his questions.

To say that "yuon" means "savages", critics of the term are likely reliant on the Khmer Rouge's definition from KR Black Book (1978) p.9, a definition that is incorrect and baseless and was included by the KR for the purpose of propaganda. Some Khmer, including Khmer Krom, believe that "yuon" actually derives from "Yuonan", the Chinese word for Vietnam. Others believe it comes from the Yaun (Khan) dynasty, against whose armies both the Khmer and Cham did battle. Regardless of its origin, Khmers have used the term since the early stages of our history. The word "yuon" appears in Khmer inscriptions dating back to the reign of King Suryavarman I (1002-1050), when it was used in the context of trade and commerce to refer to the Vietnamese people and in no way suggested contempt (see Inscription K105; Coedes, Inscriptions du Cambodge; K. Hall, Maritime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia (1985)).

The term "yuon" was later also used by early European travelers and officials; for instance, by the British linguist Lt-Col. James Low in his "On the Ancient Connection Between Kenah and Siam", Journal Indian Arch. Vol v. (1851) p.513; by famous French naturalist Henri Mouhot in his "Notes on Cambodia, Lao Country," Journal Royal Geog. Soc. London, Vol. 32 (1862) p.157; and by famous Thai King Mongkut (1851-68) in his official correspondence, Pharatchahatthalekha prahatsomdet phrachomklaochauyuhau (114-116). Even after the independence of Indochina, "yuon" was still in use by some French writers; for instance, by a French Sgt. Resen Riesen, Jungle Mission (1957). In writings, the term "yuon" was not used as a racist slur or to indicate contempt, but simply to refer to what since World War II has been known as the Vietnamese people. In Cambodian-English language dictionaries, "yuon" is defined as "Vietnamese" and vice versa.

The term "yuon" has made it into other aspects of Khmer culture and society as well. A very popular Khmer dish is "samlor mchu yuon", meaning Vietnamese sour soup. It would be incredibly odd to call this particular dish "samlor mchu Vietnam" because it is not the traditional name, and even Vietnamese-Cambodians refer to it using the word "yuon". Since the early 1900s, in Battambang and other provinces, there are pagodas called "Wat Lok Yuon" or Temple of Vietnamese Monks. If "yuon" were a term of contempt or derogatory in any way, the Buddhist Khmer would not refer to the monks or the temples with the word "yuon" because doing so would be considered sinful. The term "lok" that precedes "yuon" is in fact a title conveying sentiments of great respect and deference. If the word "yuon" were truly depreciatory, it would not be preceded by a title of such esteem.

Khmer language has been under attack for centuries. In the 18th century, the Vietnamese imperialists who oversaw Cambodia attempted to force Khmers to change our customs and language. They renamed all of Cambodia's provinces and even the country itself, as they have done in what is today Southern Vietnam (formerly Kampuchea Krom or Lower Cambodia). In the 20th century, French imperialists attempted to force Khmers to change our script to a Romanic writing style, as they had done to the Vietnamese language. Now, we are again under pressure to change our language: this time under the guise of political correctness. And again it is a function of ignorance and racism: ignorance of the Khmer language and racist to try to impose outside will on the Khmer people. Those who attempt to impose this incorrect standard of political correctness on the Khmer language and people are badly misguided.

The term "yuon" is an ancient/traditional word in the Khmer language and a legitimate part of Khmer linguistic heritage. Khmers such as Mr. Sam Rainsy should be given the freedom to speak the language of our forefathers without being subject to defamatory accusations that fly in the face of all his many noble efforts. Academics such as David Roberts who incorrectly associate the word with racism should refrain from their imprudent judgmentalism.

................

WASHINGTON TIMES 09/13/02

Cambodian coverage deserved critical review

Since when has The Washington Times been an uncritical mouthpiece for corrupt manipulators more commonly known for being virulently racist? I refer to the propaganda uncritically represented from Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy ("Bleak era seen facing a 'lawless' Cambodia," World, Tuesday). Mr. Rainsy carefully made comparisons with Afghanistan and international terrorism in an effort to attract U.S. attention, and he got it. No other sources were checked, his comments were not reviewed in light of established academic criticism of his past behavior, and Sen. John McCain's reputation was tarnished by his being associated with Mr. Rainsy. Mr. Rainsy is not a democrat. Rather, he is a disappointed authoritarian in the Cambodian tradition. He refers to his Vietnamese neighbors as "yuon," meaning savages, and he deliberately sets out to mislead anyone who will give him airtime, as I have witnessed and recorded. I have given short shrift to this individual in my scholarly monograph on Cambodian politics. In short, Times reporters should be more cautious when in the presence of racist manipulators who have little or no interest in their country, but who use public international sympathies for the United States at this time of mourning to further their own causes.

David Roberts
Lecturer School of History and International Affairs
University of Ulster Derry, Northern Ireland

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