Cambodia | Understanding Fear and Hatred

Today, we turn to Cambodia, where crimes against humanity and genocide of ethnic Cham and Vietnamese took place in the 1970s, resulting in the death of  ⅓  of our population. Today, the ethnic Vietnamese minority in Cambodia continue to face marginalization and risk of mass atrocities.

My name is Suyheang Kry. I’m 31 years old and executive director of Women Peace Makers of Cambodia. In my country, long-standing negative sentiment toward the ethnic Vietnamese minority has often culminated around elections. During the 2013 elections, hateful messages led to ethnic Vietnamese businesses being ransacked and violence against those of Vietnamese descent. With the next election set for July 2018, it’s important to be ready.

As a Chinese Cambodian, negative sentiment against ethnic Vietnamese has made me question its very existence and want to understand it deeper. Conflict is part of life, but how can we deal with it without hating or committing violence against each other?

To answer this, we put together a diverse team of 12 young locals to speak directly with community members, thanks to a grant from The Nexus Fund. Our goal was to identify whether anti-Vietnamese sentiment was really as widespread as it seemed, and if so, to better understand it. We taught young people to conduct our approach to better understand others, known as Facilitative Listening Design, by engaging residents in their communities to have frank and candid conversations about their perceptions, figure out how to combat hatred or negative sentiment, and ultimately prevent violence. We also initiated a media analysis of Dangerous Speech in social and traditional media targeting ethnic Vietnamese.

What we learned was surprising. An influx of Dangerous Speech using historical grievances and other social and political dynamics, as well as  a lack of critical thinking and communication seem to be the main drivers of this fear and hatred. One woman we met at a local market told us she had a lot of contact and normal interactions with ethnic Vietnamese, but that she still felt she disliked them. When we asked why, she thought for a while before saying, “I actually don’t know. I just see on the media that [they] are bad.”

Through many of these conversations, we realized that the way this issue is framed by the news, Facebook, and radio does not match up with reality. Like the woman at the market, many Khmer residents (our ethnic majority) have positive interactions with ethnic Vietnamese when they have the opportunity to engage with each other. In fact, we observed close connections between the two groups - even celebrations of each other’s culture. Khmer people often just feel like we are losing something to ethnic Vietnamese, and so we are even more vulnerable to messages that reinforce our fear.

We are using this important research to bring different perspectives to the media, to set up programs with youth from both communities, and to explore other positive connectors/interventions.

My vision for the work we are doing is a harmonious society where everyone sees and respects each other as human being regardless of different identity, and we are able to transform conflict through nonviolent means. The Nexus Fund’s approach of supporting local communities to lead the way aligns almost identically to ours. We fundamentally believe that it is people like us, who are directly involved in and affected by conflict, tension, or negative sentiment, that ultimately have the power and the tools to transform relationships with others since we understand the dynamics in our own conflicts.

The Nexus Fund