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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The Cambodian fear of Vietnam

The Cambodian fear of Vietnam

Anti-Vietnamese sentiment has long been evident among many Khmers, from peasants

to politicians and - most venomously - from the Khmer Rouge. In response to criticism

of Western journalists by scholar Michael Vickery, Sody Lay and Rusden

Quinn argue that there is good reason to distrust Vietnam.

MICHAEL Vickery's article, "A Non-Standard View of the 'Coup'" (Post,

29 Aug-11 Sept), is befuddling. How absurd and hypocritical of Vickery to accuse

"the Western press corps" of Khmer Rouge bias and susceptibility to Khmer

Rouge propaganda, considering his own blatant pro-Vietnamese stance. Like many Westerners

(scholars, aid workers, journalists, etc), Vickery has obviously and regrettably

"chang baok" (been duped by) the Vietnamese to the point where he not only

believes Vietnamese propaganda, but even goes so far as to espouse it himself...

as his article demonstrates.

In one sense, Vickery is correct when he writes of the "anti-Vietnamese chauvinism"

of the Khmer people: We are and will always be opposed to Vietnamese chauvinism.

And the Vietnamese have proven themselves to be the chauvinists par excellence of

mainland Southeast Asia. How else can you describe their repeated efforts to colonize

and Vietnamize Cambodia? Renaming the streets of Phnom Penh during the 1980s was

the most recent example of an insidious Vietnamese policy that dates back to the

19th Century, when provinces and cities were given Vietnamese names and Khmer leaders

were required to dress in Vietnamese garb and worship at Vietnamese temples. Although

we Khmers are anti-Vietnamese chauvinism, we are not necessarily anti-Vietnamese

- just as blacks in South Africa were anti-apartheid, and not necessarily anti-white.

(But since whites were the beneficiaries of an unjust apartheid system, it was difficult

for the average black South African to separate the two. Similarly, it may be difficult

for the average Cambodian to separate the idea of the Vietnamese from the evils they

have perpetrated upon our people).

In his diatribe against Western journalists, Vickery comments: "No doubt for

journalists the 1980s are such ancient history that they cannot be accused of bias

for forgetting them." Well, in repeatedly condemning Khmer animosity toward

the Vietnamese, one may well ask Vickery: Is the 1980s such ancient history that

he forgets Cambodians were subject to Vietnamese oppression for virtually an entire

decade? Is he such an incompetent historian that he is unaware of the atrocities

continuously perpetrated on Cambodians by Vietnam for the past several hundred years?

Perhaps Western scholars do not understand Cambodians' fear of Vietnamese imperialism

because they are themselves from countries which have historically been the beneficiaries

of colonial relationships. They cannot understand the anger and hatred of the oppressed

towards the oppressor because they have always been the latter. They do not wish

to acknowledge that feelings of indignation are not only justified, but necessary

in the struggle to remove the yoke of oppression.

Or perhaps Westerners do not understand anti-Vietnamese sentiments because they fail

to recognize altogether the existence of Vietnamese imperialism. In the following

phrase, Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of European colonialism, but the narration could easily

be used to describe historic Vietnamese policies in Cambodia: "Everything will

be done to wipe out their traditions, to substitute our language for theirs and to

destroy their culture." Even today Westerners still clump the countries of Cambodia,

Laos and Vietnam together and insensitively refer to our collection of nations, both

officially and unofficially, as "Indochina" - a demeaning term to the Lao

and Khmer peoples given the fact that, in addition to French colonialism, it also

connotes Vietnamese hegemony and, hence, signifies a double oppression. "Indochina"

is a Western concept which has been imposed on Cambodians without our consent. Before

French imperialism, no such concept existed. That the Vietnamese and Vietnamese supporters

in the West still favor use of the term suggests whom this arrangement benefits.

Some Westerners have an especially difficult time comprehending why Cambodians feel

so much anger, fear and resentment with regard to Vietnamese incursions onto our

land. Noted political theorist Franz Fanon explained: "For a colonized people

the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land;

the land which brings them bread and, above all, dignity." Cambodia has been

the victim of a colonization process which now spans over 200 years. Due to war and

genocide we have become among the poorest people in the world. In our struggle to

survive, should we not have the right to protect ourselves from further foreign incursions

without having to worry about criticism from Westerners...especially Westerners who

are receptive to Vietnamese propaganda?

When Vietnam proclaims the existence of "an historic friendship" between

our two countries, the bias of Westerners causes them to become all too credulous.

Yet when Cambodians refer to Vietnam as our historic enemy, these same scholars condemn

us for exhibiting xenophobia. Should not a person who is repeatedly exploited and

abused by a neighbor become wary of that neighbor in future encounters? Common sense

tells us that a person who inflicts harm upon and steals from his neighbor is the

person who would most like to hide or rewrite the past. It is precisely because Cambodians

have for the most part been the victims of her neighbors to the East that we steadfastly

refuse to forget past abuses and continue to refer to the Vietnamese as our historic

enemies. "Friendship" is not an appropriate euphemism for "parasitic

relationship." How can an historian, of all people, be duped by such a blatant

promotion of revisionist history?

Of course, some Westerners will rebut: Have you forgotten about Vietnam's rescue

of Cambodians from the clutches of the Khmer Rouge? To them we would respond: Let

us not be so foolish as to believe that Vietnam's motive for invading Cambodia was

strictly humanitarian. Historic patterns of abuse, and exploitation of Cambodia's

resources by the Vietnamese, evince otherwise. To them, Khmer Rogue atrocities merely

presented a convenient excuse to attempt, yet again, to annex their southwestern

neighbor. Their intervention in Cambodia can be analogized to that of thieves who,

in the process of burglarizing a home, scare away murderers (or perhaps more accurately,

scare away murderers to burglarize the home). They should be praised for running

off the murderers, but condemned for remaining in the house (and attempting to take

possession of it), eating the starving victims' food (provided by humanitarian relief

agencies no less), and stealing other valuable resources. The Cambodian people no

doubt suffered less under the Vietnamese than the Khmer Rouge... yet they still suffered.

Consistent with his pro-Vietnamese position, Vickery has become vehemently anti-Khmer

Rouge. He proposes only certain KR leaders are targeted for condemnation because

of an insidious international conspiracy to "personalize" the Khmer Rouge

by focusing on Pol Pot and his cronies rather than the organization as a whole. Cambodians,

fortunately, are rational enough to distinguish between the culpability of low-level

Khmer Rouge soldiers and that of KR leaders. Many of the KR soldiers of today are

young people who are as much victims of their circumstances as were the two million

people who died during the 1970s. KR soldiers of today do not fight because they

necessarily believe in communist ideology (as could be said for many original KR

recruits); they fight for survival. They fight because they are ordered to do so

by their leaders, and because it is the only life they know. That is why Cambodians

seek peace and reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge, while at the same time they would

like to see Pol Pot and his cronies tried for genocide by an international tribunal.

To simply say that Cambodians are sick and tired of war would be too vague: what

Cambodians are fed up with is Khmers senselessly killing other Khmers (even if these

other Khmers are Rouge). The poignant question for Cambodians remains: Is justice

in the form of bringing Pol Pot and other KR leaders to trial worth the death and

disfigurement of yet more Khmers in battle? We must decide this for ourselves, rather

than continue killing each other simply to placate the conscience of foreigners.

The idea of Cambodians deciding Cambodia's destiny is something which Westerners

generally applaud... until the decisions arrived at are in conflict with what these

Westerners had desired. For instance, Vickery proposes: "Those Phnom Penh diplomats

who last December indicated that their worry for next year was an unholy alliance

of Ranariddh, Rainsy and the Khmer Rouge which might do well in the election on a

platform of anti-Vietnamese chauvinism were correct, and if Hun Sen has averted that

we should all be pleased." Who is Vickery to know what is best for the Cambodian

people? And who is this "we" who should be pleased? Vietnamese sympathizers

like himself no doubt. When the electoral process yields a result of which he disapproves,

Vickery apparently is willing to cast aside democratic principles. Why is it that

Westerners only seem to appreciate democracy if it results in choices they approve?

This demeans the process of democracy, and is unfair to the Cambodian people.

As an historian, Vickery's excessive concern for Vietnamese interests ("After

the anti-Vietnamese chauvinism which seems to be growing, what most worries me...")

reflects a bias which can only result in the irresponsible recording and dissemination

of "disinformation" - the same disinformation he accuses the Western press

of spreading. Scholars of history should strive to maintain an impartial and objective

perspective when preserving history. The pro-Vietnam bias of Western scholars such

as Vickery is thoroughly inappropriate and unbecoming... not to mention greatly unappreciated

by the subject of their studies.

- Rusden Quinn and Sody Lay are Khmer-Americans who have worked in Srok Khmer

and plan on returning to help rebuild the homeland upon completion of their post-graduate

education.

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