The Anti-Vietnamese Legacy of Kem Ley

Collage portrait of Kem Ley

In 2016, Dr. Kem Ley was the darling of Cambodia’s pro-democracy movement. He had worked as an AIDS researcher, and as an analyst for United Nations agencies and USAID. Foreign and local journalists flocked to him for his pithy, unsparing commentary about the corruption of his country’s elites, including authoritarian prime minister Hun Sen.

For instance, when the anti-corruption organisation Global Witness released a report in July 2016 about the ill-gotten fortunes of Hun Sen and his relatives, reporters sought out Kem Ley for a response. In one interview with Voice of America, he said Cambodia’s elite families were, in fact, far more corrupt than public information suggested.

“If we compare [their wealth] to a pond, we only see just a few fish that are jumping above the water surface. But it is possible that there are still plenty of other fish underneath,” he said, speaking metaphorically as he was fond of doing.

On 10 July 2016, two days after that interview was published, Kem Ley was shot dead at a Phnom Penh gas station in what many believe to have been a politically motivated attack. An estimated 2 million people attended his funeral. His courage, his death and his prolific output continue to inspire Cambodia’s pro-democracy movement today. 

What few realise is that there were two sides to Kem Ley: the calm, clear, insightful side represented in his English writings, and the hyperbolic, nationalist side that appears in his Khmer writings. A slew of retrospective stories, published to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Kem Ley’s death this month, focus on his achievements as a respected public intellectual. It is therefore worthwhile to delve into his Khmer-language persona. This exploration reveals a sloppy pseudointellectual who obsessively blamed Cambodia’s ills on one of the country’s most marginalised communities: Vietnamese Cambodians.

Searching for a Scapegoat

At the time of his death, Kem Ley was in the process of carrying out his “100 Nights Campaign”, which he initiated in May 2016 and is still remembered as “a vast tour of the country, including home stays with rural families…to explore and document the deep-rooted problems faced by Cambodian society, such as economic land concessions granted to corporations”.

In reality, much of Kem Ley’s field research, including in the months before his death, amounted to wandering around the Tonle Sap and other places where Vietnamese Cambodians live, and accusing people of being undocumented Vietnamese immigrants. 

More than a dozen case studies from the 100 Nights Campaign are included in Kem Ley’s unfinished magnum opus Pulling Back the Curtain on the Community, which was published after his death. In one study, Kem Ley discusses the floating village of Chong Knia, an ethnic Vietnamese community in Cambodia’s Siem Reap Province that repeatedly comes up in his writings. He describes the village as “overcrowded with illegal Vietnamese immigrants who engage in overfishing and destroy fish stock and the environment”. This characterisation echoes widely held beliefs among Khmer Cambodians that have justified immigration crackdowns against Vietnamese Cambodians, many of whom were born in Cambodia but are stateless and thus vulnerable to deportation. Recently, the Cambodian government has ramped up evictions of Vietnamese fishing communities from the Tonle Sap and the riverside area of Phnom Penh, citing similar concerns about pollution and overfishing.

Instead of accounting for the rising ecological problems playing out on the Tonle Sap—from climate change to upstream hydropower dams—Kem Ley’s analysis focused solely on race. The most remote parts of Chong Knia are indeed populated by ethnic Vietnamese; these communities have lived in the vicinity for generations, and they were even targeted in several massacres by the Khmer Rouge in the 1990s. Many members live on mobile, floating homes because non-citizens are not legally allowed to own land in Cambodia. Kem Ley confuses effect for cause: rather than seeing a racialised group of fishers made vulnerable by political and economic structures, he sees race as an inherent trait that makes Vietnamese people selfish, greedy, mischievous and environmentally destructive. 

Two women hold up a photo of Kem Ley at his funeral.
Supporters attend Kem Ley’s funeral in Cambodia in July 2016. Facebook / Kem Ley Researcher Official

This view appears repeatedly throughout Kem Ley’s writings. Elsewhere in Pulling Back the Curtain on the Community, in a fable titled “Who do the Vietnamese vote for?”, he describes a fictional conversation between a group of Vietnamese Cambodian women about which parties they intend to support in an upcoming election. One woman says she votes for “our party”, a reference to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen, whom critics have long accused of being a Vietnamese puppet; Hun Sen was installed by Vietnam’s occupying authorities who ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979. The woman implies that the CPP will allow her relatives in Vietnam to cross the border in Cambodia.

Another woman in the fable says “I’ll give their party a try”, referring to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the country’s most prominent opposition party, which was outlawed in 2017 and whose leaders are known for their anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. The woman believes fewer Vietnamese coming into Cambodia will mean less economic competition, as Khmer people, she says, are not as adept at running businesses, meaning higher profits for her.

This moral of Kem Ley’s fable is that Vietnamese Cambodians are so treacherous that they would even vote for a blatantly anti-Vietnamese party to secure their own short-term economic interests in Cambodia. He even gives the women Khmer names, implying that they are disguising themselves as members of Cambodia’s Khmer ethnic majority.

Sebastion Strangio, a journalist and author of several books on Cambodian politics and history, has described Kem Ley’s fables as “cutting and incisive”—“short prose tales that anatomised his country’s psychology of obedience to the powerful”. He has described Kem Ley as a member of “a small pool of free-thinkers and consensus-breakers” in Cambodia.

The Roots of Khmer Ultranationalism

Understanding Kem Ley and his political ideology requires an understanding of Khmer ultranationalism, which can be traced through successive regimes from the 19th-century French colonial period, through the Sihanouk era, to the genocidal Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979, through the non-communist armed rebellions of the 1980s and early 1990s, right up until the present day. The idea that the territory and culture of the Khmer people are on the “brink of extinction” and about to be swallowed up by expansionist neighbours was promoted by the French colonial project. The French cultivated the idea that Western intervention was necessary to save and modernise the “simple” and “innocent” Khmer, whose civilisation, they claimed, had mysteriously fallen into decline since the ancient city of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century. 

Khmer ultranationalism, although unmistakably modern and colonial in positing that the Khmer are the only true inheritors of the modern territorial nation state and that this nation state is under incessant pressure from Vietnamese territorial ambitions, often appropriates pre-colonial tropes and myths. For example, in another one of his fables, Kem Ley describes a village leader with a black heart who is “infected” with “Vietnamese disease”. The man is seduced into marriage by a Vietnamse woman who tricks him into inviting her kin to live in the village. Vietnamese coffee vendors and recyclers flood into the village, where the leader’s disease becomes so severe that “there is no longer any cure”.

Most Khmer speakers will understand this fable as a retelling of the 17th-century Khmer king Chey Chettha. The legend goes that Chey Chettha was seduced by a Vietnamese princess, Nguyen Phuc Ngoc Van, and tricked into giving away the Mekong Delta to Vietnam. The story of Chey Chettha is often used by critics of the CPP, who compare Nguyen Phuc Ngoc Van to Hun Sen’s wife Bun Rany and claim that the prime minister has facilitated unprecedented illegal Vietnamese immigration into Cambodia due to his political subservience to Vietnam. 

Both stories are nonsense: Chey Chettha did not cede land to Vietnam, and Bun Rany is not Vietnamese, though many in Cambodia believe she is. Such stories manage to be both racist and sexist—emblematic of an anxiety about powerful Khmer men being seduced by manipulative Vietnamese women.

Much of Kem Ley’s field research, including in the months before his death, amounted to wandering around the Tonle Sap…accusing people of being undocumented Vietnamese immigrants.

Kem Ley’s fable is also remarkably similar to Khmer Rouge propaganda, which recounts the Chey Chettha myth and popularised the idea of “Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds”, or Khmer traitors resembling Kem Ley’s man with the “Vietnamese disease”. This was not the only time Kem Ley described Vietnamese people in terms of a disease. In one of his well-publicised Facebook posts he spoke of Khmer people suffering from a disease of feebleness compared to the Vietnamese—a disease that will “spread to children and future generations” and result in “the loss of territorial integrity”. He once claimed that Cambodia is a victim of Vietnamese colonialism.

These paranoids tropes have inspired massacres of Vietnamese Cambodians in 1970, the murder or eviction of nearly all Vietnamese Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, cross-border massacres, repeated massacres of Vietnamese Cambodians throughout the 1990s, a spate of violence against Vietnamese Cambodians in the 2000s, as well as the recent evictions.

In his tireless effort to identify the root causes of Cambodia’s problems, Kem Ley ignored the contradictions of a rapidly expanding capitalist economy, focusing instead on race and Vietnamese immigrants. This made him at once a champion of anti-CPP resistance, anti-corruption, environmental protection and, inevitably, Khmer ultranationalism.

US Support for Khmer Ultranationalism

In one​ essay, Kem Ley described the “Vietnamese destroying the five Khmer saucepans”, or the five ways the Vietnamese destroy Khmer livelihoods: 

  1. Through overfishing and reproducing at a faster rate than Khmer people on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers; 
  2. Khmer being dependent on Vietnamese agriculture; 
  3. Vietnamese-owned economic land concessions within Cambodia; 
  4. “Illegal Vietnamese immigrants flowing into Cambodia”, which will eventually cause “Cambodians to be slaves in a foreign country”; and
  5. Vietnamese “overflowing the [Cambodian] government” and taking it over. 

These five “saucepans” form key tenets of the nationalist critique of Hun Sen and the CPP—that Vietnamese interests have become institutionalised within the state bureaucracy, and that economic land concessions and other government policies are facades that allow Cambodian territory to be granted to Vietnam or serve Vietnamese economic interests.

But the anti-Vietnamese critique of Hun Sen did not originate with Kem Ley, who started to gain popularity as a political commentator around 2008. Its roots lie in a student movement in the late 1990s that received support from right-wing political operators in the United States. 

Supporters attend Kem Ley’s funeral in Cambodia in July 2016. Facebook / Kem Ley Researcher Official

Hun Sen had been the nominal leader of Cambodia’s Vietnamese-installed government since 1985, but it was not until 1998 that he won the position of prime minister in an election. However, many opposition parties and activists claimed the results of that election had been rigged, and thousands took to the streets in protest. Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh deployed anti-Vietnamese sentiments to stoke large crowds into opposing the disputed election results. Several Vietnamese Cambodians were murdered in Phnom Penh by mobs amid the protests. 

Some of the student activists who participated in these protests went on to set up the Students Movement for Democracy later that year. SMD cultivated a liberal, pro-democracy, pro-US image by advocating for gender equality and environmental protection. Its large youth base made it a formidable force in Cambodian politics, attracting the attention and support of international development organisations. But beneath its liberal veneer, SMD members were obsessively anti-Vietnamese and pushed the idea that the CPP and all of Cambodia’s problems arose from Vietnamese manipulation. The group led publicised visits to Cambodia’s eastern border to protest alleged Vietnamese land incursions—a tradition youth activists continue today. They also staged numerous protests against visiting Vietnamese dignitaries and “illegal Vietnamese immigrants”. They even boasted in a 2005 blog post about “dismiss[ing] the illegal youn”—a derogatory term for Vietnamese Cambodians—from a pagoda in Phnom Penh.

These activities enjoyed the support, and possibly also the ideological backing, of the International Republican Institute—a US government-funded organisation that is led by prominent members of the Republican Party. IRI has been accused of supporting efforts to overthrow democratically elected leaders who have resisted US influence, such as the 2004 coup against Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“Under IRI tutelage the main student groups—DFKSI [Democratic Front for Khmer Students and Intel­lectuals] and SMD—have developed a distinctly pro-US character,” states a 2001 analysis of Cambodia’s student movements published by the Phnom Penh Post. “Employing cold war rhetoric generally confined to the ramblings of conservative Republicans…they accuse Hun Sen and the older generation of CPP leaders of retaining a ‘communist mindset’ and of being tools for Vietnam and China.” 

So entrenched are anti-Vietnamese ideas among nationalist opposition activists in Cambodia that they have even developed a discourse claiming the Khmer Rouge genocide was facilitated by Vietnamese agents.

Both SMD and the umbrella youth organisation it came under, the Youth Council of Cambodia, received long-term support from IRI. SMD members frequently received training from IRI, and some were sponsored by IRI to attend meetings and forums outside of Cambodia. 

Several SMD members went on to become prominent opposition figures in Cambodian politics. Pang Sokhoeun, a former president of SMD and YCC, is a well-known, US-based ultranationalist who campaigns for the CNRP, the main opposition party. He has promoted Khmer ultranationalism on his various websites for almost two decades, reciting paranoid, racist tropes about Vietnamese

Dara Sorn, a popular and influential blogger, also comes out of SMD. Like his idol Kem Ley, he trades in ultranationalist conspiracy theories about Vietnamese people. For instance, in 2019, he claimed that Hun Sen was allowing mass immigration of Vietnamese across Cambodia to appease Vietnamese government leaders who were purportedly concerned about Cambodia’s warming relationship with China. 

Hing Soksan, the former chairperson of the CNRP’s Youth Movement, is also based in the US and trades in anti-Vietnamese conspiracy theories

Former CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An is a former SMD leader who was jailed over claims that Cambodia ceded territory to Vietnam in 2017, which helped reignite ultranationalist concerns over the border. 

Another former SMD member, trade unionist Rong Chhun, has grown immensely popular within activist circles since his arrest in July 2020. Although he was already a prominent labour leader, it was not his union activities that got him arrested but his claims that Cambodia had ceded territory to Vietnam. His politics since his SMD days have remained fairly consistent: in 2005, he was arrested over a statement concerning a border agreement with Vietnam; the charges were dropped following mediation by a US envoy and Kem Sokha, who was at the time head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. In 2013, in the run-up to the national election, Chhun publicly lobbied for Prime Minister Hun Sen not to accept Vietnamese sovereignty over the island of Phu Quoc, known to Cambodians as Koh Tral. 

Each of the aforementioned ultranationalists who came out of the IRI-funded SMD later became vocal supporters of Kem Ley and have worked hard to link his legacy with anti-Vietnamese nationalism. 

Opposition Politics and Ultranationalism

Opposition parties like the CNRP are not just incidentally xenophobic; they are not merely capitalising on anti-Vietnamese sentiments to gain votes—they are foundationally anti-Vietnamese. Party co-founder Sam Rainsy has long been known for his anti-Vietnamese race-baiting in speeches, and he has even penned opinion essays arguing that the ethnic slur “yuon” is not discriminatory. 

Kem Sokha, who was once the poster child of IRI, also grew popular for his aggressive anti-Vietnamese rants and campaigned with an opposition party in the 1998 election on a platform of sending “all the yuon to Vietnam”. 

The CNRP’s long history of actively courting nationalists can be seen in a 2012 email from deputy party president Mu Sochua to SMD members, in which she calls them “heroes” whose “hearts remain the same and pure for democracy”.

In his tireless effort to identify the root causes of Cambodia’s problems, Kem Ley ignored the contradictions of a rapidly expanding capitalist economy, focusing instead on race and Vietnamese immigrants.

So entrenched are anti-Vietnamese ideas among nationalist opposition activists in Cambodia that they have even developed a discourse claiming the Khmer Rouge genocide was facilitated by Vietnamese agents. Pang Sokhoeun has also tried to popularise the revisionist historiography of the Khmer Rouge—widely believed amongst Khmer nationalists—that the spread and growth of a communist movement in Cambodia was a ploy by Ho Chi Minh to steal Khmer lands and kill Khmer people. Disturbingly, this discourse itself is partially a product of Khmer Rouge propaganda and lends itself to a defence of Khmer Rouge violence toward so-called “agents of Vietnam”. In this telling of history, certain Khmer Rouge figures, like Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and sometimes even Pol Pot, are depicted as having been forced to defend Cambodia from Vietnamese incursions rather than key figures in a genocide against ethnic Vietnamese

Subscribers to this revisionist view go so far as to claim Vietnam has been conducting a long-term genocide of Khmer people, and the Khmer Rouge’s killings of Vietnamese were a necessary condition for upholding Cambodian sovereignty. CNRP co-founder Kem Sokha even suggested in 2013 that the infamous Khmer Rouge prison Tuol Sleng was a Vietnamese fabrication

Many of these ultranationalists cite Kem Ley’s abundant interviews and writings on the subject to legitimise their anti-Vietnamese views. 

The Legacy of Ultranationalism

The ultranationalist teachings of Kem Ley and his purportedly pro-democracy allies continue to influence Cambodian politics today, often in unexpected ways.

Over the last five years, even the ruling CPP has adopted ultranationalist stances and co-opted minor opposition parties and politicians who profess anti-Vietnamese ideologies. This has likely been a strategy to undermine the preeminently ultranationalist CNRP.

The government has also ramped up efforts over the last decade to further disenfranchise Vietnamese Cambodians, including by evicting communities from the Tonle Sap and Mekong waterways and demonising them through state-controlled media. 

Khmer ultranationalism also remains a strong influence on Cambodian youth movements. For instance, the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association has vowed to continue Kem Ley’s 100 Nights Campaign, which has predictably resulted in provincial trips to find “illegal Vietnamese”. During one such trip, the group described “meeting an illegal youn in Kampot freely doing illegal fishing”. 

Youn come to Cambodia to collect all the natural resources of the Khmer, while Khmer citizens suffer in poverty, unable to fish, with the big problem being that the [local] police chief has a youn wife,” one of their members said in a 2017 video published on Facebook.

KSILA has endorsed Kem Ley’s nationalist policy recommendations to deport illegal foreigners, to send the military to protect the borders and to establish a surveillance regime over all foreigners in Cambodia. KSILA members have received media attention recently after several were arrested while protesting for the release of nationalist union leader Rong Chhun. 

What is perhaps most perplexing about Khmer ultranationalism and Kem Ley’s legacy is the way many foreign analysts have either ignored or misunderstood them. Researcher Astrid Norén-Nilsson wrote an entire paper on Kem Ley’s ideas and strategies without mentioning he was an ultranationalist. The Phnom Penh-based news site Southeast Asia Globe has published several articles on Kem Ley that present his political legacy as one that “aimed to challenge the status quo by empowering people to engage in politics on their own terms and with their own priorities” and describe him as “a true man of the people”. The Globe has also published glowing articles on CNRP leader Kem Sokha that have neglected to interrogate the role of ultranationalism in boosting his career. 

The problem of Khmer ultranationalism—apart from the fact that it draws on the same murderous, genocidal discourse as Khmer Rouge propaganda—is that its analysis of Cambodia’s political and economic problems looks only at race. To ultranationalists, Khmer people are the only authentic inheritors of the great Angkorian nation, and Vietnamese people, or the Vietnamese state, are behind every historical woe of contemporary Cambodia. 

This ideology disregards colonialism and the fact that Khmer ultranationalism is itself largely a product of French colonial historiography. It places an enormous amount of hope in Western forms of governance and intervention, without any critical analysis of imperialism or the contradictions of capitalism as it spreads across Cambodia. 

As decolonial, antiracist, anarchist and Marxist analyses are almost non-existent in Cambodia today, ultranationalism has been adopted as a key mode of resistance to authoritarianism.​​ Today, as ethnic Vietnamese face a renewed threat of evictions from their floating homes amid the pandemic, even the lyrics of young hip-hop artists who condemn the government and its corruption are infected with ultranationalist tropes. Local human rights groups, meanwhile, have been largely silent on the looming humanitarian crisis that will emerge if ultranationalism continues to guide government policy. 

Most people believe Kem Ley lost his life as a consequence of his outspoken political commentary. Few recognise that one of his main policy recommendations—the removal of “illegal Vietnamese immigrants”—was actually adopted by the Cambodian government after his death.

Header collage by Charis Loke, from photos by Jazmin Quaynor, JJ Ying, Dan Cristian, David Maier on Unsplash, and Un Yarat for the US Embassy.

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