Christine Leonard reports on the history of Vietnamese-Khmer relations - and
why the Vietnamese are seen as so different than the neighboring Thais.
ACCORDING to a recent Khmer newspaper report, Vietnam is currently formulating
a plan to usurp a large portion of southern Cambodia. The report, complete with a
map roughly outlining the scheme, suggests that "youn" are planning to
expropriate the Cambodian provinces of Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Kompong Cham, Kratie,
Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, and Stung Treng, therefore extending the Vietnamese territory
and border to the Mekong River1.
The article even exposed the very hotel in which the plans were being formulated,
although, importantly, the perpetrators themselves were neither mentioned by name
nor organization (arguably because these were unknown, making the story itself less
verifiable, but from a Khmer perspective still very plausible).
The belief that Vietnam plans to overtake and incorporate numerous provinces of Cambodia
is strongly held by Khmers, both in Cambodia and abroad. A Khmer newsletter published
in California, for example, stresses that Vietnam's aim "has always been to
create an Indo-Chinese Federation under its power."2
Khmers point to history to support claims of current and impending confiscation of
Cambodian soil. As Chou Meng Tarr notes, "quite clearly, forms of Cambodian
racism toward [Vietnam and the] Vietnamese minority [in Cambodia] did not develop
in a historical vacuum," but rather developed particularly in response to the
"'expansionist' tendencies of the pre-colonial Vietnamese imperial state"3
Vietnamese movement into Cambodian territory began in the late 16th and early 17th
centuries, so that by the 1620's, increasing numbers of Vietnamese colonists had
moved into the Mekong Delta, then still part of Cambodian.
The Vietnamese eventually took over Prey Nokor, now known as Ho Chi Minh City (formerly
Saigon). Expanding occupation of the delta area, as Chandler puts it, by the "institutionalization
of control" the Vietnamese eventually "removed large portions of territory
and thus thousands of ethnic Khmer from Cambodian jurisdiction." Thus Vietnam
came to control the southern area and persons now known as Kampuchea Krom.4
This history of encroachment, and in particular highly unflattering stories of the
surreptitious takeover of lands which comprise Kampuchea Krom, was taught openly
in schools prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover. Though less openly imparted today,
the stories (and related attitudes) are passed down from generation to generation
and are thus ingrained in Khmer minds from a young age.
These attitudes are reinforced regularly by the media; a recent article in Ouddamgati
Khmer News, for example, related in detail the story of how Khmers, and in particular,
the Khmer King Chey Chenta II, were "seduced" into allowing Vietnamese
to take Cambodian land.
According to the story, an 18th century Vietnamese King (Vietnam then known as Dai
Viet) plotted to take the rich, fertile lands of southern Cambodia. The Dai Viet
king initially sent "spies" into Cambodia to determine what kind of things
(and behavior) would make the Khmer King happy; they studied for example, geography
and correct Khmer conduct. Having learned about Khmer culture, the Vietnamese formulated
a "psychological" plan to dupe the Khmer King. The Dai Viet King had a
beautiful daughter, named Cochinchine. Having learned what the appropriate procedure
would be to introduce his daughter to Chey Chentha, he sent her to him, in the hope
that he would fall in love with her. Indeed he did, and although he did not accept
her as a "queen" immediately, he did receive her into his home, and eventually
married her. The Dai Viet King, upon learning that Chey Chentha had come to love
Cochinchine dearly, asked him to allow Vietnamese to live in Cambodian territory.
King Chey Chentha welcomed the new settlers and in essence, allowed the Vietnamese
King to lay the groundwork for overtaking the area.5 The theme of "Remember
Kampuchea Krom" became and continues to serve as the battle cry for a host of
anti-Vietnamese assemblages, including, of course, the Khmer Rouge.
As a matter of historical fact, the French colonial regime in Indo-China encouraged
Vietnamese migration into Cambodian lands, particularly into Phnom Penh. By the end
of the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese moved into the fertile agricultural lands
along the riverbanks "from Phnom Penh to Stung Treng and from Batambang [sic]
to Chaudoc. This movement generally "incurr[ed] the (usually passive) resentment
of the Khmer peasants."6
Another recent article in the Phnom Penh Khmer language press suggests that some
ethnic Khmers, and in particular Kampuchea Krom, may currently sympathize with Southern
Vietnamese (as opposed to Northern, "communist" Vietnamese) in their search
for democracy. "Have you forgotten Kampuchea Krom?" the author asks. Vietnamese
are Vietnamese, the article states, and any Vietnamese who may seem kind-hearted
and/or democratic may easily trewlop dae - "change face."7 To sympathize
with or to trust Vietnamese at all, furthermore, is to forget the injustice of taking
Kampuchea Krom lands. "The fact is, Yuon are Yuon," "There are only
those who are looking for the opportunity to take everything," the article says.8
Khmers throughout the 20th century remained and continue to remain very concerned
with further takeover of Khmer land. Khmers express pronounced distress about "shrinking"
Cambodian borders: they report that in provinces along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border,
the Vietnamese are unmistakably progressing into Khmer land. In Svay Rieng Province,
for example, there are reports that the Vietnamese have moved the Cambodian-Vietnamese
border to take in the southern part of Kompong Ro district, which lies within the
current politico-legal boundaries of Cambodia.
Khmers also insinuate that lack of adequate border controls has allowed Vietnamese
to infiltrate Khmer lands illegally. Even in Phnom Penh, where land ownership is
a complicated issue for Khmers themselves, Vietnamese have always been seen as trespassers.
Khmers will identify many of the squatter settlements which have sprung up around
Phnom Penh since the early 1990's as "Vietnamese areas," despite the fact
that Cambodians occupy them. Along the Tonle Bassac in Phnom Penh, Vietnamese settlers
have constructed a small village of floating houses. The area lies in front of two
Khmer temples, and the Vietnamese living there are so despised that even the monks
have organized attempts to expel them from the area.
Curiously, the Khmers also warred for centuries with the Thais and have similar laments
about land lost to that nation. Khmers are particularly sensitive about invasions
of Angkor during the 14th and the 15th centuries.9 Currently, Thai invasion and usurpation
is also a concern: as Prasso comments, "Surely the Thai's contribute as much
or more of a real threat to Cambodian sovereignty than the Vietnamese." And
yet, she continues, "the territorial incursions do not seem to pose a perceived
threat to the Khmer nation."10
In common parlance, Khmers rarely deride the Thais the way that they do the Vietnamese.
One inhibition to Khmer antagonism toward the Thais may be the belief that Thais
are more closely related to Khmers racially than are the Vietnamese. Perhaps, the
explanation is the notion that Thais are jeun leun meaning "developed"
or "prosperous," "modern" as opposed to the "undeveloped"
or "backward" Vietnamese.
Thai goods of all sorts are believed to be superior to the same type of goods made
in and imported from Vietnam. I have seen Khmers pay much more for goods identical
in every way because the seller convinced them that they were Thai goods, as opposed
Another explanation of the difference in attitudes is that whereas Thais may be moving
into northern provincial areas, they are not present in Phnom Penh. It is the urban
areas which often become the loci of racial hatred, and since Thais are not perceived
to be encroaching upon the capital and seat of the Palace they are not seen as a
A final possibility is that the Thais are not seen as very influential or threatening
politically, whereas the Vietnamese are perceived to pose threats to Cambodia's political