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Knowing your audience

A day after National Assembly president Heng Samrin assured Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in Hanoi that the government would take strict measures to quell further “extremist” Khmer Krom protests, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong reportedly told demonstration leaders yesterday that the government shared their concerns.

Observers have said the differing statements highlight attempts by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to walk a diplomatic tightrope by distancing itself from widespread ire towards Vietnam, while at the same time avoiding giving offence to the party’s historical partner.

According to the leaders of groups invited to a private meeting at Namhong’s office yesterday afternoon, the foreign minister asked activists to postpone protests outside the Vietnamese Embassy – which occurred for three consecutive days last week – in order to allow time for a solution to be found.

Namhong said that although the government had passed petitions on to Vietnam on behalf of demonstrators, it was still waiting for a response, the activists said.

But according to Sok Sothea of the Khmer Youth Alliance for Democracy, the minister had also agreed with protesters that Vietnam “could not change history”.

Students, monks and Khmer Krom activists have been calling on an embassy spokesman to apologise for saying Vietnam had enjoyed sovereignty over the former Kampuchea Krom provinces in what is now lower Vietnam long before they were ceded by the French in 1949.

Demonstrators burned a flag during a protest outside the embassy last week, earning a swift rebuke from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, which called on Phnom Penh to take action to stop the “perverse” behaviour.

That was backed up by Nguyen directly to Samrin on Monday. According to Vietnamese media reports, Samrin painted the protesters as aligned with fringe, extremist groups in response.

But Foreign Minister Namhong “told us that burning flags during demonstrations is normal in a democratic country”, youth group leader Sothea said of yesterday’s meeting.

“Throughout the meeting, the government expressed the will to support our activities.… We accept their request to postpone protests, but our stance is still to demand that [Vietnam] apologise to Cambodian people and recognise history.”

Thach Setha, an opposition party official who attended the meeting as head of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, confirmed that Namhong had delivered a positive message.

“The meeting was based in the spirit of Khmer and Khmer, and the government has not ignored our protests, because history cannot be changed,” he said.

That message was very different from the one reportedly delivered by Samrin to Nguyen.

“Samrin said the government of Cambodia regretted the incident and said it was perpetrated by a small group of extremists who were provoked by individuals who suffer a warped sense of history,” Vietnam’s Thanh Nien newspaper reported.

“He added that he and the Cambodian parliament were displeased with the action and have since taken strict measures to prevent similar actions.”

Neither Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong nor several ruling party lawmakers could be reached for comment.

On Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak defended the demonstrators on radio, saying they were “simply expressing their opinions in a democratic country”.

“Cambodia is different from Vietnam.… Cambodia allows freedom of expression under the framework of the law,” he told Radio Free Asia.

Many Cambodian nationalists praised the comments, as did Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy.

But political commentator Ou Virak yesterday said the government was “pandering” to whichever audience it was facing over the issue, adding that Samrin and Namhong’s differing messages would have been part of a “calculated move”.

“I think the embassy spokesperson is putting the government in a very difficult situation,” he said. “I think the CPP is pretty reluctant to condemn the Vietnam government because of the long-term relationship. They are in a very tough position.”

Mao Pises, who leads the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, which helped organise the protests, said despite the mixed messages, demonstrators “will wait and see” what happens.

“I think, in the end, the Cambodian government will not do as the Vietnamese government wants them to do, because I know they are clever and they will not follow,” he said.

“Then again, Mr Heng Samrin might have some pressure from the Vietnamese … personally, and also he cannot say anything. He just says ‘yes, yes, yes’ to whatever they request.”

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