Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Unease behind closer links with Vietnam

Unease behind closer links with Vietnam

Unease behind closer links with Vietnam

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."

Ethnic numbers

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

in Cambodia.

"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

social relations.

"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."


  • Cambodia’s image problem

    In opening remarks at a recent event, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Luy David said information can be a double-edged sword. He told a European Institute of Asian Studies (EIAS) briefing seminar that the media has unfairly presented

  • PM Hun Sen says dangers averted

    Delivering a campaign speech from his home via Facebook Live on Thursday, caretaker Prime Minister Hun Sen said his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had carried the country through danger in its latest mandate. He was specifically referring to the threat of a “colour revolution”

  • Kingdom's trade deal with EU questioned before poll

    A European Union (EU) mission met with senior government officials at the Ministry of Interior on Tuesday as the 28-member bloc monitors an agreement under which Cambodian goods reach the crucial European market tariff-free. Some 10 commissioners are in the Kingdom as part of a seven-day

  • A new carrier takes off in capital

    Cambodia Airways, the latest passenger airline to enter the Kingdom, launched its first domestic flight on Tuesday. Flight KR801, carrying 145 passengers, left the Phnom Penh International Airport at 9:50am and landed in Siem Reap at 10:35am in an Airbus A319. Cambodia Airways marketing and branding