Many Cambodians harbor a deepseated cultural aversion towards their neighbors to the east, the Vietnamese. Yuon, a term denoting Vietnamese ethnicity, is one of the most derogatory insults Cambodians can hurl at each other during arguments. Prostitutes are popularly believed to be of Vietnamese descent, as no Cambodian girl - the model of propriety and virtue - would allow herself to be compromised in such a fashion. Past sovereigns of Cambodia supported by the Vietnamese are loathed, whereas those placed on the throne and maintained there by the Thais are lauded.
Explanations for Cambodian ill-will toward the Vietnamese are vague and unsatisfactory, usually referring to a time in the distant past when the Vietnamese are alleged to have killed hundreds of Cambodians in the course of constructing a canal between the two countries, or elucidated in terms of Vietnamese invasions of Cambodian territory and culture over the past 150 years. More recently, politicians have manipulated old concerns in this regard to garner support for their own party platforms. Yet these "justifications", always implied to have been based upon historical facts, appear to be unfounded by the very sources that would reasonably seek to demonstrate their veracity - the Cambodian Chronicles.
Let us first consider the issue of a Vietnamese "invasion" of Cambodia in the 17th century. It is true that Cambodia shrank to one-fifth its original size between the 14th and 19th centuries; but constant skirmishes with the Thais, Chams and multiple Viet dynasties were to blame rather than a wholesale invasion. The loss of Prey Nokor, the Cambodian name for what is now Ho Chi Minh City, and the area [broadly all the territory to its west] known as Kampuchea Krom in southern Vietnam, are particularly lamented. However, far from documenting any invasion, the Cambodian Chronicles reveal that the decision to part with these territories was made by a Cambodian king.
King Paramaraja IV (reigned 1603-1618) married his son and heir to a Vietnamese princess just before he died, in the hopes that the alliance would prevent the Thais from attacking. It was this Cambodian prince, who ruled as King Jai Jettha II (reigned 1618-1627), who made over the Cambodian lands along the east coast to Vietnamese hegemony.
In 1623, Jai Jettha II received a request from his father-in-law's court at Hue, asking that the territories of Prey Nokor and Kampong Krabei be handed over to Vietnamese administration. Fearing reprisal from the Vietnamese queen if they did not acquiesce, Jai Jettha II and his officials agreed, and Vietnamese settlers began moving into the area now known as Kampuchea Krom.
At the same time, Vietnamese officials began collecting the import taxes paid by merchant ships seeking entrance upriver.
On the surface this could be dismissed as a bad decision on the part of a young and inexperienced king concerned at potentially alienating his powerful in-laws. Yet it is possible that the administration of these territories had simply passed beyond the control of the Cambodian state by this point. Armies were constantly being faced to the northwest and northeast in order to stave off Thai offensives; there was no standing army available to maintain a presence on the east coast. The very name "Prey Nokor" is telling - it translates to "Wild City," implying that it was at the very least sparsely populated and ill-maintained, if not completely abandoned.
Whether the decision to part with Prey Nokor and its surrounds was made out of relief or in fear, there seems little doubt that this was a decision made by a Cambodian king, and not as a result of an invasion.
Another story exists in contemporary Cambodia to explain why the Vietnamese are dangerous and not to be trusted. The story goes that in the beginning of the 19th century, the Vietnamese wanted to build a canal between Phnom Penh and Chau Doc to facilitate transport. They conscripted a large number of both Cambodians and Vietnamese to do the work, although the foremen of the labor groups were solely Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese were very cruel toward the Cambodians, beating them with sticks to make them work faster. One day, two Vietnamese overseers were angry that the Cambodians were not fulfilling the quota of work despite repeated beatings. They selected three workers from the Cambodian contingent and buried them up to their necks in a triangular formation. Then they lit a fire in the middle and used the Cambodians' heads as cooking stones for their kettle.
The Vinh Te canal - which runs from Chau Doc to Ha Tien - itself is a historical fact; construction was begun in 1810 and continued into the 1820s, at a time when the king of Cambodia, Ang Chan (reigned 1797-1835) had turned to the Vietnamese for protection and assistance against the Thais. In return, Ang Chan was forced to embrace Vietnamese customs and language, and appoint Vietnamese officials to administrative positions. No doubt many Vietnamese abused their powers over what they saw as "backward" and "uncivilized" Cambodians. Yet this is hardly different from how Cambodians had in the past treated Chams, or Mons, or their own countrypeople from lower social classes conscripted to participate in the grandiose public works programs of Udong or Angkor.
Indeed, it is the enforced cultural changes that seem to have resonated most strongly with witnesses from the time. The Chronicles speak of enclaves of noble Cambodians taking to the forest rather than adopt Vietnamese customs, including a more "rational" taxation system, and the humiliations meted out to Ang Chan's daughters by their Vietnamese protectors.
It is hardly surprising that the almost total loss of Cambodian identity [from the former Kampuchea Krom] causes strong emotion today. Yet it is important to note that this occurred not as a result of marauding Vietnamese intent upon world domination, but as a result of policies adopted by Cambodian kings in the best interests of their people. These kings could not have foreseen how their decisions would impact upon later events; but it is imprudent to misrepresent the part that they have had in shaping relations between Cambodia and Vietnam.
There are 35 complete and fragmentary documents in Khmer that make up the Cambodian chronicles, found by the French in various wats, the Royal Palace, and in the possession of elite families. None date earlier than 1796.
They incorporate earlier oral histories and texts that have since been lost to the climate and upheaval of civil wars. Together these 35 documents make up eight different versions of Cambodian history.
Two Khmer scholars working in France, Khin Sok and Mak Phoeun, have translated the most comprehensive account of the chronicles into French, also offering commentaries upon dates and events, and supplying in appendices the different or missing accounts.
About the author
• Dr Trudy Jacobsen is an ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University and the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the Monash Asia Institute. Her current project, Intersections of Desire, Duty and Debt, explores historical and contemporary concepts of sexual contracts in Myanmar and Cambodia.