Keith Hutson and Sam Rith Considering the reciprocal visits by heads of state - and
all the attendant ceremony and official friendliness - the past month has witnessed
one of the warmest displays of diplomacy between the Royal Government and the Socialist
Republic of Vietnam since the countries established official ties nearly 40 years
The meetings released an explosion of vows and bows; of deep thanks and high praise.
Several Phnom Penh streets were festooned in colorful patriotic bunting and banners
were unfurled proclaiming "Long live the bonds of solidarity, friendship, and
cooperation between Cambodia and Vietnam."
During his March 6-7 visit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai accompanied Prime
Minister Hun Sen to place wreaths at the Independence Monument and the recently refurbished
Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument.
Later, at a transnational business forum, the two leaders pledged to boost bilateral
trade 40 percent to US$1 billion in 2006. Hun Sen applauded Vietnam's agreement to
scrap tariffs on 40 Cambodian agricultural products and urged Vietnamese business
leaders to invest more in the country.
Some 10 days later 49-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni paid his first state visit to
Vietnam, where he presented flowers at the mausoleum of former revolutionary leader
Ho Chi Minh and made promises for comprehensive cooperation.
But the high-level largess and booming trade numbers are in sharp contrast to well-documented
problems that exist between Khmers and Vietnamese within Cambodia, a range of officials
and social analysts told the Post.
Some said that cozy diplomatic ties overshadow simmering social issues that are rooted
in historical precedent and racial discrimination - and have been stoked by politicians
into xenophobic fervor for years.
Less than a decade ago the same friendship statue graced by the prime ministers this
month was defaced with tar and set ablaze by opposition party members. That same
year four ethnic Vietnamese were beaten and killed during election violence, two
in front of Funcinpec headquarters.
In the run-up to the 1998 national election anti-Vietnamese rhetoric so offended
then-UN human rights envoy Thomas Hammarberg that he blasted contenders Prince Ranariddh
and Sam Rainsy for "making sweeping condemnations of the presence of people
of Vietnamese origin in the country - many who have the right to be here."
Similarly, prior to the 2003 election, election monitor ANFREL complained of outright
antagonism against Vietnamese "and irresponsible use of rhetoric inciting racial
"We are too close for comfort," said Chea Vannath, director of the Center
for Social Development. "We've a lot of bad historical experiences for centuries.
We lost south Cambodia to the Vietnamese. People who dislike Vietnamese feel that
they are being exploited by Vietnam or manipulated. Our relations are not on equal
footing. Cambodia is one small country next to a big, powerful country."
Others analysts say the positive tone of recent events is a direct result of the
CPP's longstanding relationship with Vietnam and as the ruling party's power grows,
so will diplomatic, economic and military arrangements.
"The CPP has a special relationship with Vietnam because Vietnam helped them
take power in 1979," said opposition leader Sam Rainsy, referring to the Vietnamese
invasion of Cambodia on December 25, 1978, to oust the Khmer Rouge.
A Vietnamese army that numbered as many as 200,000 troops established the People's
Republic of Kampuchea and controlled the major cities and most of the countryside
from 1979 to September 1989.
"Had Vietnam not intervened, the Khmer Rouge would have stayed in power,"
Rainsy said. "But the CPP would not be able to run the country either."
Trade booms, fear looms
According to the Vietnamese Embassy, the commercial relationship between Vietnam
and Cambodia has never been better. Bilateral trade last year topped $700 million
and 49,642 Vietnamese tourists represented the fastest-growing visitor group to Cambodia
- a 37 percent increase from 2004.
"[Trade] has been increasing from year to year," said Vannath. "After
the Thai riots, Vietnamese products were everywhere. Before we had Vietnamese products
in small markets, but not in supermarkets.
Behind China, Vietnam is now the second biggest benefactor to the Royal Cambodian
Armed Forces, according to Ministry of Defense officials. Minister of Defense Tea
Banh told the Post in October 2005 that as many as 500 RCAF soldiers are trained
in Vietnam each year.
"[Our] relations with Vietnam are getting better than previous years because
we have a lot of human resources who are able to work with them," said Minister
of Information Khieu Kanharith. "Also, cooperation between Asian countries is
improving. Today Vietnam helps us a lot."
But a range a street interviews conducted by the Post revealed striking contrast
between government statements and everyday attitudes. Many Cambodians the Post spoke
to expressed anger at migrant and ethnic Vietnamese for infringing on the employment
market and for lingering historical animosities. Nearly each individual questioned
used the word "yuon" to refer to Vietnamese. "Yuon" can be used
as a derogatory reference for Vietnamese, depending on the tone and context.
The 2003 Historical Dictionary of Cambodia traces the term to Sanskrit derivation
and maintains that "yuon is used in political speech to indicate national superiority
and ethnic hostility."
Khieu Sopheak, secretary-general of the Ministry of Interior, said that many Vietnamese
exist in the domestic labor force because "They work hard for little money,"
but denied any that widespread resentment exists toward Vietnamese people.
According to a report titled Minorities at Risk published by the Center for International
Development and Conflict Management, "the Cambodian government is reluctant
to acknowledge the Vietnamese as citizens. This means that they are excluded from
the mainstream Cambodian society, politics and economy."
Although the CIA World Factbook claims there are roughly 680,000 ethnic Vietnamese
living in Cambodia - or about 5 percent of the 13.6 million population - estimates
by local observers vary widely.
"It depends on who you ask, " Vannath said. "There could be anywhere
from 800,000 to 4 million. Government estimates are more conservative and opposition
parties try to use that for political reasons. The problem is you can't know whether
it's true because you cannot separate what is political from what is the truth."
The government did not release 1998 census results in regard to "birthplace"
and "mother tongue."
In a rare interview granted by the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, political counselor
Nguyen Son Thuy could not provide population numbers for ethnic Vietnamese living
"The legality of Vietnamese migration to Cambodia is changing and getting better,"
Thuy said. "Vietnamese associations are doing statistics and issuing identification.
The Vietnamese government is paying attention and hopes that the Cambodian government
and local authorities will allow Vietnamese migrants to have fair conditions like
other migrants living in Cambodia."
But some analysts argue that the Vietnamese must do more to placate the fears of
Cambodians-many of whom remember all too well a decade of occupation and unbalanced
"We look at the history between Cambodia and Vietnam, seeing that it was not
so good," said opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay. "Vietnam must help
Kampuchea in order to make Cambodian people feel confident, because Cambodia has
not had a good experience with Vietnam."