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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The last nightmare?

The last nightmare?

To the editor:

I read with interest the former Australian Ambassador's

extract on some vital aspects of Cambodian society. John Holloway is to be

praised for his frank assessment and his impassioned plea for a long range

contingency plan in Cambodia. As the publication of the extract is intended to

promote debate, may I humbly comment on a few related points.

First, in

detecting or acknowledging the border issue, or to put it bluntly, the issue of

anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodian students, John Holloway has gone

further than most Western observers on this matter.

However, this

apparent failure to substantiate on the syndrome is characteristic of many who

attempt to prognosticate problems which may easily be by-products of this

syndrome. This is hardly surprising since much of the existing research

material, at any rate in the English language, has been accumulated by writers

who have been conditioned to view Cambodia as a mere 'parenthesis inside a

Vietnamese sentence' and it is largely through the filter of Vietnamese history

that Cambodia can then be discerned .

That Vietnam emerges for much of

the latter-half of this century as a principal champion of the struggle against

colonialism, and it is the Vietnamese people who overall bore the brunt of the

physical onslaught, is indisputable. This knowledge helps shape and mould

perspectives, and social discourses are evolved. To criticize Hanoi is almost an

act of sacrilege even after the Vietnam conflict, as Washington continues to

conduct its Vietnam wars in other guises not least in Indochina itself. This

unfortunate tendency is further fueled by (and so plays into the hand of)

Vietnamese misinformation and its propaganda machine.

Second, there is a

fundamental trend which persists throughout Vietnamese history outliving eras

and political regimes: territorial expansion. Being a middle weight power,

Vietnam has consistently resorted to preserving and consolidating her organic

cohesion through state-led policy of permanent dispersion of her ever growing


Demographic expansion adds to the already intolerable burden

and demand on existing cultivable land, its natural fertility can only diminish

over time due to intensive farming. The Red River Delta which can be considered

as the first major settlement of the Vietnamese people, is a case in point.

Thus, the compulsion to push south and southwest was as much seduced by an

unlimited expanse of land which were parts of domains of much weaker kingdoms,

as compelled by pressure to the north. Even today Vietnam continues to feel the

weight cruelly placed upon her by her northern neighbor. This is reflected by

the size of her one million-strong army - still the fourth largest conventional

force in the world and the cost this exerts on her impoverished


Third, the irony is that just as some would conclude by saying

that Cambodian's weakness is Vietnam, Vietnamese scholars and writers have for

centuries spoken of their country's burden in the same vein with regard to

China, and have spared no energy in drumming up popular resistance and

resentment against this bullying master-neighbor . If Cambodia is to secure for

herself a stable future, her numerous and voracious neighbors must learn to

confine their domestic burdens to their national frontiers and to contain their

'dynamism' industry' well within their borders, rather than making others'

sovereignty outlets for their own social and economic pressure.


question of Vietnam's colonization of Laos and Cambodia long regarded by many as

malicious rumor - is now a verifiable fact, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet

Union and the subsequent withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia. In the

Laotian capital Vientaine, a 1990 census found 15,000 Vietnamese living

illegally there, most of whom were deported . This move was carried out despite

the fact that President Kaysone is himself half-Vietnamese and many of his

colleagues owe their posts to Hanoi's patronage. As for the large numbers of

Vietnamese living in Cambodia it is not certain how many or what fraction of

them possess skills which co-Prime Minister Ranariddh considers vital to postwar

reconstruction. True, two major industries are undeniably Vietnamese: building

development and prostitution. It is not certain which of these two is the least

desirable or the most damaging to the 'fabric' of Khmer society. Prostitutes may

help meet some basic human needs in a way that modern architects and builders do

not. Many of the buildings that were erected in Phnom Penh in recent years were

designed and executed with a view to meeting quick profit-making opportunities.

The designers-builders for the most part appear unconstrained by any standard

guidelines normally associated with town-planning or any inkling commitment to

good taste. The impact of this architectural holocaust has meant little for the

deeply traumatized capital - once a showcase of provincial French colonial

town-planning-except to engender in her a sense of self-alienation and to trap

her in that trauma.

I am aware that many of the ills afflicting the

country are hardly unique and the causes are multifarious among these is the

position she occupies as a 'walnut between the jaws of her neighbors', an apt

description by one writer. This position is identified by some as the reason for

her decline, insecurity, paranoia and the most tragic episode in her history,


It is not enough for the Cambodian intelligentsia to go on

portending their country's disasters and bracing themselves for the final doom.

Cambodia's leaders will have to rise above their own pettiness to establish a

coherent and secure framework within which all Cambodians (that includes the

Khmer Rouges as well) could then contribute their energy and creativity to the

revival process guided by the force of justice and humanity. Hanoi will have to

be made to listen to its own slogans and break from habits and mentalities it

ascribes only to others (the Khmer Rouge are for example accused of harboring

under 'rural medieval mentalities'). Now more than ever Cambodia must be rescued

from the crushing jaws of her neighbors. With her social foundations extirpated,

the time-span for recovery is long and agonizing even if a full stop can be put

to the traditional aggression Cambodia's two main neighbors habitually inflict

upon her. While Cambodia is disintegrating in the chaos and hemorrhage of

revolution, civil war, genocide, foreign invasion and occupation, the same local

powers, who brought about the demise of the Khmer empire, continue to assert

their traditional dominance over a country that has the misfortune of being the

object of this relentless march of manifest destiny .

A direct

consequence of this historical trend has been the development of an almost

characteristically sinister national psyche; a phenomena feeding on justified

outrage, insecurity and paranoia. The national capacity for self-destruction

also reveals a nation desperately attempting to salvage its sense of pride as

well as to reassert its self-identity which have been bitterly humiliated,

trodden under, by successive reverses in its fortune and its resulting

prostrated state. The nation's energy, once directed to the task of forging a

powerful empire, building grandiose civilization, in short to creativity, is

unleashed internally on itself to its greatest detriment.

It was on

Christmas day that Vietnam finally launched a full scale invasion of Cambodia.

It was then in 1978 that the world received its grim Christmas present and

magnitude of which it had not known since Nazi Germany. By that day the

Cambodian communists led by Pol Pot had been in power for nearly four years.

Could it have been possible that Hanoi, never mind the international community,

had taken that long to learn of the catastrophe? The Vietnamese leadership was

unanimous in expressing its paternal grief and astonsihment. 'It surprised even

us', they say, 'who have known so much suffering.' Premier Phan Van-Dong

described Cambodia as 'land blood and tears; hell on earth'. Friends and

apologists of Hanoi excused the delay to invade Cambodia on the pretext that

Vietnam was concerned not to be seen as belligerent having herself just emerged

from a long drawn out conflict. If this is, indeed, the case why the surprise? A

reading of history will give a different clue. Successive Vietnamese rulers have

looked upon Cambodia as their legitimate sphere of influence and accordingly in

this sphere they invest heavily for example in the fields of sociological and

topographical research, A Vietnamese researcher often in army uniform, would

note down any detail, from rural customs, farming practices and eating manner to

where to find the most obscure water source in any dry season . Only this fact

helps explain the unlimited nature of Pol Pot's suspicion and


It is more likely that Hanoi preferred political expediency

over humanitarian calculations in this matter. By delaying the decision to oust

the Khmer Rouge from power it achieved two main motives at once: the complete

structural collapse of Khmer Rouges society (the wholesale extermination of the

middle classes, referred to in John Holloway's article, who have invariably

spearheaded anti-Vietnamese movement is a related factor) and, hence, the

legitimacy it requires to march into a country and occupy it . I am, therefore,

surprised that the Vietnamese leaders are surprised.

Finally, if one

looks beyond all the symptoms: human rights abuses, banditry, corruption etc.

one can see a large body of human beings still desperately yearning for a

concrete and lasting peace. In recent years their natural resources on which

their livelihood depends has increasingly been eroded due to unfettered

commercialization. The nature of this process and the absence of internal social

stability in turn demand and accelerate greater commercialization its

devastating impact is already self-evident and is a serious concern for all

except, perhaps, a tiny and over-privileged segment of the country.


entire nation might be awaking from a nightmare and it may be a most terrifying

one, but only dreamers call it the last.

- Mr. Pen Marith, London



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