Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, May 26, 2006

In Response to Your Washington Times Article of Dr. David Roberts

September 20, 2002

Dear Sir:

I am writing this letter in response to your Washington Times article of Dr. David Roberts (Lecturer from the School of History and International Affairs, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland) dated 09/13/02, who accused the Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy as undemocratic and authoritarian. In addition, he implied that Mr. Sam Rainsy was a racist, when he used the word "Youn" to refer to the Vietnamese.

First, the Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy is a true patriot and democrat. He is well deserving of the award that was given to him by Senator John McCain.

Dr. Roberts may be an expert in his field but he is no expert in Khmer language. In the Khmer dictionary, it says "Youn" means Vietnamese and is possibly related to the Sanskrit word "Yavana" that means savage. However, this possibility of a link between the words "Youn" and "Yavana" is just pure speculation and has no basis for it.

Anyhow, my own research indicates that the word "Youn" came from the word "Yueh". The Mandarin Chinese calls Vietnam, Yueh Nam. The word "Nam" means south in Chinese. "Yueh" indicates the name of the people of that region. Therefore, "Yueh" means Viet or Vietnamese in Chinese and "Yueh Nam" means the "Yueh" people of the south. In this case, south means south of China. The North pronounces it Yeknam (with a "Y" sound).

Chou Ta-Kuan (Zhou Daguan), the celebrated Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia in the 13th century, indicated in his report that there was already a large population of Chinese settling in Cambodia at that time. He said that the Chinese preferred life in the Khmer Empire because it was easier than in China. There were a lot of Chinese men marrying the native Cambodian women. I don't know when Khmer started to call the Vietnamese "Youn", but the habit may have been picked up from the Chinese settlers who lived in Cambodia at the time. The word "Youn" may have derived from the Chinese word "Yueh" to indicate the Vietnamese. If one starts to think about it, "Viet" (as pronounced by the North Vietnamese) or "Yeak" (as pronounced by the South Vietnamese) sounds very similar to "Yueh"; and "Yueh", meaning Vietnamese, in turn sounds very similar to "Youn". George Coedes, the French expert on the Southeast Asian classical study, found an earlier evidence of the word "Yuon" inscribed in Khmer on a stele dating to the time of the Khmer King Suryavarman I (1002-1050.)

Why do the so-called Western scholars and journalists keep on perpetrating this kind of misinformation about the word "Yuon"? "Youn" does not mean savage as Dr. Roberts had mistakenly indicated in his writing. Savage in Cambodian means "Pourk Prey" or "Phnong". Cambodians calls Vietnamese "Youn" the same way they call Indian "Khleung", Burmese "Phoumea", Chinese "Chen", and French "Barang".

When the Vietnamese calls Cambodian "Mien" why did the Western press and scholars not report it to be a derogatory word also? If I were to follow the logical thinking of the Western press and scholars, then "Mien" must be a derogatory word also. In the late 17th century, the Vietnamese court of Hue had indiscriminately changed the names of the Cambodian princesses Ang Mei, Ang Pen, Ang Peou, and Ang Snguon to the Vietnamese sounding names of Ngoc-van, Ngoc-bien, Ngoc-tu, and Ngoc-nguyen, respectively. Also they changed the name of Phnom Penh to Nam Vang. Why do scholars and press stay silent on these subjects.

It is very dangerous for foreigners, like Dr. Roberts, to interpret the meaning of certain native words when they do not fully understand the languages and customs of those natives. It is people like Dr. Roberts who helps perpetrate the misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the word "Youn" to mean savage. aggravate the mistrust and hate between Cambodian and Vietnamese.

Cambodians have been using the word "Youn" to refer to the Vietnameses before the word Vietnamese had even existed. Because of the ignorance of some scholars and journalists about the meaning of this word, are we therefore supposed to abandon using this word that we have done from time immemorial?

If Dr. Roberts insists on saying that the word "Youn" means savage, then I would ask him to prove to Cambodians how it is so. How does he know that this word means savage? What did he base his knowledge from? If he is a true scholar, then he must not base his understanding on hearsay. Otherwise, his credibility is at risk.


Kenneth T. So

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