The latest round of Khmer Krom protests outside the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh kicked off over the weekend. Participants set fire to flags and called for a nationwide boycott of products from the neighouring country, raising fears of violence in the coming days.
The rallies on Saturday and yesterday, which attracted hundreds of Khmer Krom, monks and land dispute victims, were part of a five-day protest aimed at demanding an apology from Vietnam for controversial comments made by a former embassy spokesman.
In early June, erstwhile spokesman Trung Van Thong sparked a series of street protests when he told Radio Free Asia that the former Kampuchea Krom provinces in the Mekong Delta – a sore spot for Cambodian nationalists – belonged to Vietnam long before being officially ceded by colonial power France in 1949.
While Van Thong was removed from the post last month – the Vietnamese did not cite his comments as the reason for the reshuffle – protesters yesterday were far from pacified.
“I will keep protesting until an apology is made,” said Khmer Krom demonstrator Em Bunthy.
Banners hung next to the embassy echoed her threats. “Vietnamese are historical thieves, so they must apologise to Khmer people,” one read.
For the second day running, protesters yesterday set fire to Vietnamese flags and stamped out the flames in a show of rage.
Venerable Sin Hay, a Kampuchea Krom monk from Stung Meanchey pagoda, said he set the flags alight as a way of making his demands heard.
But the bold statement, Hay said, came at a high financial cost.
“Burning the flags was not to do with those who arranged the event.… I spent $190 of my own money to purchase the Vietnamese flags. We have to do it by force, because of our nationalism in the country,” he said.
The incident comes just two months after Vietnam called for the Cambodian government to take action when protesters, in what it called a “perverse” act, set fire to its flag.
This time around, Cambodian officials told the Post they are still debating whether to intervene.
“City Hall is considering whether they are doing anything wrong.… We have already informed them that those who do anything illegal will be responsible before the law,” said Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Khuong Sreng.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the lack of any specific rules on flag-burning was a “flaw in the law” but urged demonstrators to find a “peaceful way” of making their demands.
“It’s kind of provocative; burning somebody’s flag is an insult,” he said. “We are friends with Vietnam.”
But Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Association, which is leading the protests, said that flag-burning was “a normal way of protesting across the world”.
“I believe the protest is non-violent; Yuon used to burn Chinese flags and Thais used to burn Cambodian ones,” he said, using a word for Vietnamese often seen as derogatory.
Setha, who is also a member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, added that the protests and flag-burning would end when the Vietnamese government publicly accepted the protesters’ version of history.
If the government “accept their mistakes gently, everything will be over,” he said. Until then, action, including calls to boycott Vietnamese products, would continue, he added.
The Vietnamese Embassy could not be reached yesterday.
Less than two weeks after Setha announced plans for the boycott, he said it is already hitting Vietnamese businesses hard.
“We have received phone calls from vendors who are selling Vietnamese noodles saying that the appeal has affected their business, but they are not angry with us,” he said.
Protesters yesterday told the Post that they would be boycotting everything from food to mobile networks until an apology is made.
“I’ve decided not to use Metfone,” said one protester, referring to a Vietnamese military-owned telecoms company, which is widely used in Cambodia.
Pou Nov, 39, a security guard at a grocery store that sells a wide array of Vietnamese products, said visitors have plummeted by around 70 per cent since the demonstrations started.
“In the morning there’s usually a lot of people here, but not [anymore],” Nov said.
“They’re scared [to come]. They’re not boycotting the store,” he added.
According to Setha, student protesters will today be divided into groups to distribute leaflets across the capital’s markets further promoting the boycott.
But concerns have been raised that if plans go ahead to march to the markets, as announced in a September 26 fundraising appeal signed by Setha, the security forces could react violently.
Mao Pises, head of the Cambodian Federation of Intellectuals and Students and an activist for the Kampuchea Krom cause, said the government’s response to marches in popular markets such as Central, Russian or O’Russey would be far more heavy-handed than their tolerant approach at the embassy.
“If the protests go to the market that would be much more difficult, I think the government would take violent action,” he said.
Ang Chanrith, executive director of the Minority Rights Organization, said that if the Vietnamese government failed to find a way of appeasing the demonstrators, Vietnamese across the Kingdom could suffer.
“The Vietnamese government needs to think about this, otherwise it will affect Vietnamese businessmen and people,” he said.
“If there is not any solution, maybe there will be violence,” he added, recalling the apparently racially motivated mob killing of a Vietnamese-Cambodian man in the capital’s Meanchey district in February.
“Why not come to say something to the protesters? Vietnam must find a solution,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TAING VIDA AND VONG SOKHENG