Anti-Vietnamese sentiment has long been evident among many Khmers, from peasants
to politicians and - most venomously - from the Khmer Rouge. In response to criticism
of Western journalists by scholar Michael Vickery, Sody Lay and Rusden
Quinn argue that there is good reason to distrust Vietnam.
MICHAEL Vickery's article, "A Non-Standard View of the 'Coup'" (Post,
29 Aug-11 Sept), is befuddling. How absurd and hypocritical of Vickery to accuse
"the Western press corps" of Khmer Rouge bias and susceptibility to Khmer
Rouge propaganda, considering his own blatant pro-Vietnamese stance. Like many Westerners
(scholars, aid workers, journalists, etc), Vickery has obviously and regrettably
"chang baok" (been duped by) the Vietnamese to the point where he not only
believes Vietnamese propaganda, but even goes so far as to espouse it himself...
as his article demonstrates.
In one sense, Vickery is correct when he writes of the "anti-Vietnamese chauvinism"
of the Khmer people: We are and will always be opposed to Vietnamese chauvinism.
And the Vietnamese have proven themselves to be the chauvinists par excellence of
mainland Southeast Asia. How else can you describe their repeated efforts to colonize
and Vietnamize Cambodia? Renaming the streets of Phnom Penh during the 1980s was
the most recent example of an insidious Vietnamese policy that dates back to the
19th Century, when provinces and cities were given Vietnamese names and Khmer leaders
were required to dress in Vietnamese garb and worship at Vietnamese temples. Although
we Khmers are anti-Vietnamese chauvinism, we are not necessarily anti-Vietnamese
- just as blacks in South Africa were anti-apartheid, and not necessarily anti-white.
(But since whites were the beneficiaries of an unjust apartheid system, it was difficult
for the average black South African to separate the two. Similarly, it may be difficult
for the average Cambodian to separate the idea of the Vietnamese from the evils they
have perpetrated upon our people).
In his diatribe against Western journalists, Vickery comments: "No doubt for
journalists the 1980s are such ancient history that they cannot be accused of bias
for forgetting them." Well, in repeatedly condemning Khmer animosity toward
the Vietnamese, one may well ask Vickery: Is the 1980s such ancient history that
he forgets Cambodians were subject to Vietnamese oppression for virtually an entire
decade? Is he such an incompetent historian that he is unaware of the atrocities
continuously perpetrated on Cambodians by Vietnam for the past several hundred years?
Perhaps Western scholars do not understand Cambodians' fear of Vietnamese imperialism
because they are themselves from countries which have historically been the beneficiaries
of colonial relationships. They cannot understand the anger and hatred of the oppressed
towards the oppressor because they have always been the latter. They do not wish
to acknowledge that feelings of indignation are not only justified, but necessary
in the struggle to remove the yoke of oppression.
Or perhaps Westerners do not understand anti-Vietnamese sentiments because they fail
to recognize altogether the existence of Vietnamese imperialism. In the following
phrase, Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of European colonialism, but the narration could easily
be used to describe historic Vietnamese policies in Cambodia: "Everything will
be done to wipe out their traditions, to substitute our language for theirs and to
destroy their culture." Even today Westerners still clump the countries of Cambodia,
Laos and Vietnam together and insensitively refer to our collection of nations, both
officially and unofficially, as "Indochina" - a demeaning term to the Lao
and Khmer peoples given the fact that, in addition to French colonialism, it also
connotes Vietnamese hegemony and, hence, signifies a double oppression. "Indochina"
is a Western concept which has been imposed on Cambodians without our consent. Before
French imperialism, no such concept existed. That the Vietnamese and Vietnamese supporters
in the West still favor use of the term suggests whom this arrangement benefits.
Some Westerners have an especially difficult time comprehending why Cambodians feel
so much anger, fear and resentment with regard to Vietnamese incursions onto our
land. Noted political theorist Franz Fanon explained: "For a colonized people
the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land;
the land which brings them bread and, above all, dignity." Cambodia has been
the victim of a colonization process which now spans over 200 years. Due to war and
genocide we have become among the poorest people in the world. In our struggle to
survive, should we not have the right to protect ourselves from further foreign incursions
without having to worry about criticism from Westerners...especially Westerners who
are receptive to Vietnamese propaganda?
When Vietnam proclaims the existence of "an historic friendship" between
our two countries, the bias of Westerners causes them to become all too credulous.
Yet when Cambodians refer to Vietnam as our historic enemy, these same scholars condemn
us for exhibiting xenophobia. Should not a person who is repeatedly exploited and
abused by a neighbor become wary of that neighbor in future encounters? Common sense
tells us that a person who inflicts harm upon and steals from his neighbor is the
person who would most like to hide or rewrite the past. It is precisely because Cambodians
have for the most part been the victims of her neighbors to the East that we steadfastly
refuse to forget past abuses and continue to refer to the Vietnamese as our historic
enemies. "Friendship" is not an appropriate euphemism for "parasitic
relationship." How can an historian, of all people, be duped by such a blatant
promotion of revisionist history?
Of course, some Westerners will rebut: Have you forgotten about Vietnam's rescue
of Cambodians from the clutches of the Khmer Rouge? To them we would respond: Let
us not be so foolish as to believe that Vietnam's motive for invading Cambodia was
strictly humanitarian. Historic patterns of abuse, and exploitation of Cambodia's
resources by the Vietnamese, evince otherwise. To them, Khmer Rogue atrocities merely
presented a convenient excuse to attempt, yet again, to annex their southwestern
neighbor. Their intervention in Cambodia can be analogized to that of thieves who,
in the process of burglarizing a home, scare away murderers (or perhaps more accurately,
scare away murderers to burglarize the home). They should be praised for running
off the murderers, but condemned for remaining in the house (and attempting to take
possession of it), eating the starving victims' food (provided by humanitarian relief
agencies no less), and stealing other valuable resources. The Cambodian people no
doubt suffered less under the Vietnamese than the Khmer Rouge... yet they still suffered.
Consistent with his pro-Vietnamese position, Vickery has become vehemently anti-Khmer
Rouge. He proposes only certain KR leaders are targeted for condemnation because
of an insidious international conspiracy to "personalize" the Khmer Rouge
by focusing on Pol Pot and his cronies rather than the organization as a whole. Cambodians,
fortunately, are rational enough to distinguish between the culpability of low-level
Khmer Rouge soldiers and that of KR leaders. Many of the KR soldiers of today are
young people who are as much victims of their circumstances as were the two million
people who died during the 1970s. KR soldiers of today do not fight because they
necessarily believe in communist ideology (as could be said for many original KR
recruits); they fight for survival. They fight because they are ordered to do so
by their leaders, and because it is the only life they know. That is why Cambodians
seek peace and reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge, while at the same time they would
like to see Pol Pot and his cronies tried for genocide by an international tribunal.
To simply say that Cambodians are sick and tired of war would be too vague: what
Cambodians are fed up with is Khmers senselessly killing other Khmers (even if these
other Khmers are Rouge). The poignant question for Cambodians remains: Is justice
in the form of bringing Pol Pot and other KR leaders to trial worth the death and
disfigurement of yet more Khmers in battle? We must decide this for ourselves, rather
than continue killing each other simply to placate the conscience of foreigners.
The idea of Cambodians deciding Cambodia's destiny is something which Westerners
generally applaud... until the decisions arrived at are in conflict with what these
Westerners had desired. For instance, Vickery proposes: "Those Phnom Penh diplomats
who last December indicated that their worry for next year was an unholy alliance
of Ranariddh, Rainsy and the Khmer Rouge which might do well in the election on a
platform of anti-Vietnamese chauvinism were correct, and if Hun Sen has averted that
we should all be pleased." Who is Vickery to know what is best for the Cambodian
people? And who is this "we" who should be pleased? Vietnamese sympathizers
like himself no doubt. When the electoral process yields a result of which he disapproves,
Vickery apparently is willing to cast aside democratic principles. Why is it that
Westerners only seem to appreciate democracy if it results in choices they approve?
This demeans the process of democracy, and is unfair to the Cambodian people.
As an historian, Vickery's excessive concern for Vietnamese interests ("After
the anti-Vietnamese chauvinism which seems to be growing, what most worries me...")
reflects a bias which can only result in the irresponsible recording and dissemination
of "disinformation" - the same disinformation he accuses the Western press
of spreading. Scholars of history should strive to maintain an impartial and objective
perspective when preserving history. The pro-Vietnam bias of Western scholars such
as Vickery is thoroughly inappropriate and unbecoming... not to mention greatly unappreciated
by the subject of their studies.
- Rusden Quinn and Sody Lay are Khmer-Americans who have worked in Srok Khmer
and plan on returning to help rebuild the homeland upon completion of their post-graduate