Three months after he sparked street protests with controversial comments about the history of the former Kampuchea Krom provinces in the Mekong Delta, Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Trung Van Thong has been “removed” from his position, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday.
But protest leaders were quick to speculate that he had simply reached the end of his official term and was being replaced according to procedure.
Whatever the case, the groups say the plan is to keep protesting until they receive a formal apology from Vietnam and recognition of the “true” history of the provinces, home to many ethnic Khmer known as Khmer Krom.
Speaking after a meeting between newly appointed Vietnamese Ambassador Thach Du, visiting Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong yesterday afternoon, spokesman Koy Kuong said the issue of Kampuchea Krom protests had been raised.
Demonstrations outside the embassy in Phnom Penh peaked last month when a flag was burned, leading to outcry from top Vietnamese leaders, who called the act “perverse”.
“They [the Vietnamese diplomats] have just confirmed that they will send a diplomatic note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Cambodia about removing the spokesman back to their country,” Kuong told reporters yesterday outside the Foreign Ministry.
Kuong declined to comment on whether Van Thong was being removed because of the controversy his remarks had caused, but hinted that this was the reason.
“In diplomatic protocol worldwide, when we talk about ‘removing’ [an embassy official], it means that there was a problem, which we can understand,” he said.
Van Thong could not be reached for comment.
Speaking on Radio Free Asia in early June, the spokesman said the former Kampuchea Krom provinces – a sore spot for Cambodian nationalists – belonged to Vietnam long before being officially ceded by colonial power France in 1949.
The remarks sparked a series of street protests, largely tolerated by the government despite its close relationship with Vietnam, which has long drawn the ire of many Cambodians.
But any hopes the Foreign Ministry might have had that the removal of Van Thong would settle the issue may prove short-lived.
Sok Sothea, a coordinator at the Khmer Youth Alliance for Democracy, which led some of the protests, said more demonstrations would be held in early October to call on the government to suspend diplomatic ties with Vietnam, clamp down on illegal immigration and boycott Vietnamese products.
“I think that just the removal of the spokesman does not calm down our hearts. We still demand an apology from the Vietnamese government,” she said.
Mao Pises, head of the Cambodian Federation of Intellectuals and Students, said that he believed that rather than disciplining Van Thong, Vietnam was merely reshuffling diplomats as per “regular procedure”.
“Mr Koy Kuong is trying to hide the real story about this, and he is kind of biased towards the Vietnamese,” he said.
“Whatever [happened] … if they do not confirm to recognise the true history of Kampuchea Krom, we will not accept it, and we have to protest again.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment on whether the authorities would take a tougher stance on protests following the dismissal, but said it could be construed as “punishment”.
“If someone is removed before [the end of their] term, I think it’s a punishment,” he said, adding that he did not know for certain whether that was the case.
Vietnamese Ambassador Thach Du, who took office in July, is believed to be ethnically Khmer, according to state media.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH