​Vietnam: The view from Cambodia | Phnom Penh Post

Vietnam: The view from Cambodia


Publication date
24 December 1999 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Dan Woodley and Chea Sotheacheath

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Hereditary Enemies or Future Friends?

In the first of a series

focussing on Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese minority, Chea Sotheacheath and

Dan Woodley explore the history of the contradictions in Cambodia's

relationship with Vietnam and its people.

Vietnam saved Cambodia from Pol Pot, but the welcome ran thin.

Seeking to sway a curious crowd

of onlookers at a 1998 campaign address in Pailin, opposition leader and SRP

chief Sam Rainsy used the term "Yuon" no less than 138 times, each of which

occasioned a chorus of raucous applause from the gathered crowd.


scholars still debate the exact origin of the word "Yuon", there's a larger row

over whether the word is pejorative. During the 1993 electoral campaign, use of

"Yuon" by politicians prompted UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi to publicly rebuff the

Khmer Rouge, among others, for "unseemly and objectionable" behavior. At the

time, it was noted that the State of Cambodia only used the word "Vietnam" in

public declarations.

But when your Khmer cook tells you she's made samlor

m'chou Yuon (sweet and sour Vietnamese soup) for lunch, should you worry that

she may be trying to serve up some poison? Hardly! It's a dish ingested and

enjoyed daily from Svay Rieng to Sisophon.

In the event, it seems that

part of the debate hinges on "context", "usage" and "tone of


Certainly, Rainsy's intent during his feisty Pailin speech was

not that of fostering a spirit of amity with Cambodia's eastern neighbors. More

likely he was fishing for quick political points; a vehicle which he could blame

for the country's core social scleroses - crime, corruption, prostitution and

unemployment, while castigating Hun Sen and the CPP for being too close to

anything Vietnamese and, thus, "part of the problem."


scape-goating remains a common recourse among politicians in Cambodia. Base

tactic though it may be, it continues to draw the nationalistic fervor of

Cambodians as few other sentiments can. It is a bitterness moored in the past,

and has served on occasion to unify Cambodians traditionally partitioned along

lines of ancestry or patronage.

Even among the country's educated elite,

mere thought or mention of the Vietnamese is often enough to elicit feelings of

rancor and suspicion.

Director of the Prek Pra Primary School in Phnom

Penh, Chhut Pien, became visibly heated when discussing the ethnic Vietnamese

squatters whose houseboats sought to tie up on the river bank close to his


"Everybody knows about that nationality. ... Don't play with the

Yuon. Their houses can walk, their foundations can grow. Wherever they are,

there is a problem," he counsels.

Pien then admits to having marshalled

a small mob of teachers and students who, armed with axes, sticks and knives,

ventured to the river bank to "protect their land" against a people they've

determined to be Cambodia's eternal adversary.

The Vietnamese who'd

transgressed into Pien's backyard were, just hours before, some of the more than

200 ethnic Vietnamese families eking out existences from their houseboats near

the Monivong Bridge in Phnom Penh. They'd been forcibly evicted as part of

then-Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh Chea Sophara's sporadic crackdown on the

capital's "illegal immigrants."

"All the illegal Vietnamese immigrants in

the city must be cleaned out," Sophara had enjoined.

Although he would

later qualify his comments to include illegal immigrants from other countries,

Sophara's expulsions sent a collective chill down the spines of the estimated

35,000 ethnic Vietnamese residing in Phnom Penh, even among those families whose

urban residences had spanned generations.

For Phnom Penh's Vietnamese,

Sophara's ostensibly selective targeting of them was resonant of centuries of

traditional Khmer antipathy towards their eastern neighbor.

"They say

Yuon are not allowed to live in the land of Khmer ... that Yuon must go and live

in Yuon land," evicted Vietnamese resident Tinh Thieu Dong lamented. Tinh

expressed dismay at the frenzy of anti-Vietnamese sentiment that the evictions

of her and her Vietnamese co-inhabitants managed to summon among ordinary Khmer.

"Before, I always thought that Khmer people were gentle and polite and

didn't [victimize others], because they are Buddhist," Tinh explained,

recounting how she and her family had been verbally intimidated, their

houseboat's lines repeatedly cut as they floated down the Bassac toward the

Vietnamese border.

"I never thought Khmer people could be as cruel as

that," Tinh exhorted, pondering the authenticity of what many latter-day

Vietnamese had held to be a peaceful coexistence with the country's Khmer ethnic


Ho Thy Nam, who for ten years lived in close proximity to Tinh

as a fellow denizen of the Bassac River floating squatters community, was

equally bewildered at the repugnance his Khmer neighbors exhibited during the

course of his eviction.

"Why is it that Cambodian people despise

Vietnamese people?" Nam mused, as he and his anxious family waited for Cambodian

immigration police to "repatriate" them over the border into Vietnam.


mass evictions of Nam and his neighbors have rekindled many of the unpleasant

memories of older Vietnamese residents and Cambodian human rights groups privy

to earlier campaigns, official and unofficial, to cleanse the Kingdom of its

Vietnamese minority.

The historical source of hostility between Cambodia

and Vietnam, and to a lesser degree Cambodia and Thailand (formerly Siam), has

been the expansionist geopolitical inclinations of both of Cambodia's larger

neighbors; a shared penchant to tame and exploit the fertile, relatively

underpopulated soils of their neighbor.

Cambodia's present-day historical

perceptions of Vietnam contrasts with its relationship with the Thais. Thus,

despite Cambodia having weathered numerous incursions from the Thais including,

among other antagonisms, their annexation of northwestern Cambodian provinces,

their invasion of Cambodia in the 1830s, and their support of Pol Pot's Khmer

Rouge all during the 1980s, it is the "Vietnamese issue" that can bring

Cambodian blood to a boil most readily in recent decades.

Past Vietnamese

infractions upon Cambodian national sovereignty invoke far darker responses. The

Vietnamese sought, throughout their period of expansion in the 1830s, to

superimpose elements of their own culture on that of the Cambodians.

Particularly assailed were the Khmer language and Khmer agricultural techniques,

dismissed as "archaic" by Vietnamese administrators.

Most cutting of all

were Vietnamese attempts to discredit Cambodian forms of spirituality by

supplanting Cambodia's Theravada forms of Buddhism with a more-or-less alien

Sino-Vietnamese model of Buddhist worship.

Vietnam's undertaking to

venture beyond mere subjugation and impose wholesale cultural change on Cambodia

established them as "hereditary enemies" in the collective psyche of the Khmer.

It is an ill-will that has persisted until the present day.

In 1963

then-Prince Sihanouk said of the Vietnamese, "Whether he is called Gia Long, Ho

Chi Minh, or Ngo Dinh Diem, no Annamite [Vietnamese] will sleep peacefully until

he has succeeded in pushing Cambodia toward annihilation, having made us first

go through the stages of slavery."

Sihanouk's reproach echoed a Cambodian

past laden with anti-Vietnamese sentiments.

Following the decline of the

Angkorian empire Cambodia had artfully managed to avoid being absorbed and

"vassalized" by its neighbors, firstly by seeking patronage from the Thais as a

bulwark against Vietnamese encroachment, thereafter by sidling up to the

Vietnamese in order to extinguish any aspirations the Thais might have had.

Cambodia's ancien regime knew well the fear with which Vietnam held Thailand,

and of the contempt the Thais had for Vietnam in return.

But from around

1770 the Vietnamese succeeded in extending their reach into what is now referred

to as Kampuchea Krom - the tract of Vietnam south of Ho Chi Minh City into the

Mekong Delta, extending down to the then Cambodian coastline. The area was

gradually peopled by the Vietnamese, inevitably falling under Vietnamese

administration. It was during this period, immediately following the accession

to power of Emperor Gia Long in 1802, that Vietnam became unified. With that

unity arrived strength and the potential for national aggrandizement.


his book, Facing The Cambodian Past, historian David Chandler reveals that from

1806 Gia Long revived the custom of tributary gifts from Cambodia to Vietnam.

This, despite the Cambodian King Chan (b 1790, r 1797-1835) functioning as a

protege of the Thai court, and the existence of a Bangkok-appointed first

minister as Cambodia's regent.

The tributary gift system would, after

about 1811, tip the balance of power in Cambodia away from the Thais towards the

Vietnamese, a political oscillation which, ironically, assisted Chan in

reestablishing himself on the throne following an abortive coup by his


The Vietnamese promptly demanded copious supplies of tribute

and labor from Cambodia, the latter most likely inciting anti-Vietnamese

uprisings in 1820 when five thousand Khmers were seconded to work on the Vinh Te

Canal. Thereupon was set the antecedent for future Cambodian revolts against the

Vietnamese, the embers of a perpetual conflict that would flicker and flame at

various intervals throughout the following two centuries.

From the period

of Vietnamese colonization in the 1830s, right through to Vietnam's liberation

of Cambodia from Khmer Rouge oppression in 1978, Cambodian attitudes to their

eastern neighbor have been mixed at best. In their most virulent form, Vietnam

was a nation to be viewed with trepidation and disfavor, its intentions doubted,

its sincerity questioned.

At times when anti-Vietnamese passions have

exploded, Khmers have slaughtered innocent Vietnamese by the thousands, as they

did in 1970 after the Lon Nol coup d'etat when bodies of victims floated down

the Mekong for days. Even in this decade, the public consciousness has been

repeatedly peppered by the wanton massacre of ethnic Vietnamese by Khmer Rouge


Cambodian conceptions of the Vietnamese have been wrapped

around fables depicting their foe as a cruel, barbarous race. One story (Yuon

dam te ong), actually taught to school kids in the early 1970s during the Lon

Nol regime and generally known by most Khmers, depicts Vietnamese foot-soldiers

using the heads of Khmer prisoners as a tripod for a boiling pot.


story has it that a certain nineteenth century Vietnamese emperor, upon

apprehending a band of Khmers, buried three of them neck-high in the ground and

used their heads as a cooking platform for a large brazier. As the emperor set

about boiling water in the pot, a senior offsider is said to have stood by

ordering the agonized prisoners not to "spill the Master's tea."


sheer abasement evident in that tale is symbolic of much of the Cambodian

people's resentment towards Vietnam today. It strikes at the heart of two

unshakable Khmer values; the sacredness of the head in Buddhist lore, and

absolute reverence for the Monarchy - challenged in the story by the Vietnamese

high official's contempt for Cambodian "subjects".

Cambodia's Vietnamese

"problem" is deep-rooted and remarkably potent. Progress in relations between

the two nations will require the elimination of retarding institutions, of the

politics of fear and of the aeration of hurtful historical legend.


occasion, King Sihanouk has appeared willing to shelve the rhetorical aversion

to Vietnam congenital to many Cambodians.

"In my relations with Vietnam,

I have always adopted a realist attitude. Heaven has made it our neighbor for


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