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VN rallies ’round the flag

A monk burns a Vietnamese flag
A monk burns a Vietnamese flag near that country’s embassy during a Khmer Krom rally in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. PHOTO SUPPLIED

VN rallies ’round the flag

The Vietnamese government has condemned the burning of its country’s flag by protesters outside the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh earlier this week, labelling it a “perverse” act and calling on the Cambodian government to take action.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Hanoi said Vietnam strongly protested “illegal demonstrations” that saw hundreds of angry protesters from the Kampuchea Krom community gather outside the embassy on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

They have been demanding an apology from Vietnam after an embassy spokesman said in early June that the former Kampuchea Krom provinces in the Mekong Delta – still home to many ethnic Khmer, and a sensitive topic for many nationalists – belonged to Vietnam well before being ceded by colonial power France in 1949.

The flag was burned by a monk at the protests on Tuesday.

“The acts by the Khmer Kampuchea Krom extremists are perverse, with the intention of seriously insulting the good traditional friendship and cooperation between Vietnam and Cambodia,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a statement on Wednesday that was released in Vietnamese on the ministry’s website.

“We request Cambodia strictly deal with the case in line with the law and adopt effective preventative measures so as to avoid similar action [in the future].”

Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong could not be reached yesterday to confirm whether the government had received the message directly.

But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the government did not support the burning of any nation’s flag and would “take appropriate action” after Vietnam’s statement, but could not confirm what such “action” would entail.

“If we feel that the public order has been offended we are going to manage it,” he said.

After clashes between protesters and security forces outside the embassy on July 9, Vietnam accused demonstrators of interfering in its internal affairs.

Embassy spokesman Trung Van Thong, who made the original comments, has been unreachable in recent days, but has repeatedly stated that he has “no interest” in apologising.

Thach Setha, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community group, which led this week’s protests, said Vietnam’s statement represented the country “wanting to flex its muscles and show that it is the boss of Cambodia and can order Cambodia to do what it wants”.

Setha said that the protests would continue unless an apology was forthcoming.

“If Cambodia takes any action to ban its own people [from having] the right to protest, it means Cambodia is a puppet of Vietnam,” he said, before praising the authorities’ handling of the recent demonstrations.

Setha, who is also a senior opposition party official, said he did not condone the burning of flags, though he questioned why Vietnam was condemning it, given Chinese flags were recently burned in that country.

Separately yesterday, Um Sam An, an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker in Siem Reap province, said he planned to summon Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to parliament to answer questions on the issue.

“I would ask Hor Namhong why he didn’t react to the Vietnamese spokesman in Cambodia … and I want him to invite the Vietnamese ambassador to Cambodia to answer some questions about why the Vietnamese government did not reply to [our] petition,” he said.

Vietnam’s official line on the flag burning was reported widely in the local media there, but online, netizens expressed differing reactions to the incident.

On one forum, Vietnamese weighed in to back Cambodians’ right to public protest.

“It looks like [Vietnam] is overreacting and its attitude is interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. [Cambodia] absolutely has the right to burn the flag. VN cannot ban people like Iraq, Iran, [North] Korea and so on,” one user posted.

But a Vietnamese nationalist Facebook page with almost 200,000 likes called “Patriot’s Journal” said that Khmer Krom activists were treading on Vietnamese sovereignty.

One comment referred to Khmer Krom as “Vietnam’s land raiders”.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PECH SOTHEARY

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