Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Eternal Khmer-Vietnamese and Khmer-Thai Animosity

by KJE

On one of my recent visits to Cambodia I asked a friend of mine whether the Khmer people in Cambodia hate the Vietnamese as much as the overseas Khmer.

His reply was, ‘Nobody likes the Vietnamese, only Hun Sen does.’

I had asked because all the Khmer blogs, forums, and other English-language publications on the web display a thorough, deep-seated, and often-times virulent, hate of the Vietnamese people in general and the Vietnamese government in particular. This seems to be somewhat surprising given the fact that it was the Vietnamese that liberated Cambodia from its stone age Communist Pol Pot regime, which, after all, managed to kill 2 million Khmer, either directly through executions or through starvation.

So perhaps a quick look at its history will reveal some insight into the reasons for this ever lasting hate, which, it appears, goes only in one direction as both Thais and Vietnamese do not harbor the same feelings towards Khmer. Their attitude towards Khmer people can maybe best described by arrogance, or even contempt, though even that has slowly been undergoing change. Nowadays it seems to be more indifference than anything else.

Like all neighboring countries in the world, Cambodia and Vietnam were at war at one time or another throughout their history. War obviously is in the human nature. Whether it is a war to gain territory, a war over birthrights, a war along ethnic lines, or a war over religion, people have always found a reason to go to war.

Cambodia because of its size and population has not been a powerful country in the region for a long time. Bordering Thailand and Vietnam have always overshadowed Cambodia. However, during the Angkor period the Khmer Empire was an advanced civilization. Though it declined after the 13th century it remained a powerful country until the 15th century. Many wars with its neighbors, however, left it weakened, and the Thais finally defeated Angkor in 1432 (see Wikipedia for a full timeline). Even after that, the empire conducted many wars with the Thais and the Vietnamese, which only resulted in the loss of more territory. Ever since the Khmer Kingdom had been subservient to both neighbors.

A king who had been installed by the Thais in the 19th centuries finally sought protection from the Thais from France, which would lead to Cambodia finally becoming a French colony in 1863. In that respect Vietnam did not fare any better as it was also colonized by the French in the mid-1800s.

Thailand has never in its history been a colony of a foreign power with the exception of the Japanese occupation during WW II. The Thai people derive considerable national pride from that.

After gaining independence from France in 1954 following the Indochina War, Vietnam was divided into Communist North Vietnam and republican South Vietnam. Of course, we all know that in 1975 the Communists took over South Vietnam after first having defeated the U. S.’ efforts to defend South Vietnam, who withdrew in 1973, and then the South Vietnamese forces.

After the U. S. withdrew from Indochina the Communist insurgent movements in Laos and Cambodia gained the upper hand, and Pol Pot toppled the Lon Nol government in Cambodia. To pursue its goal of hegemony over the region the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and drove the Pol Pot regime into the jungle 4 years later where the Khmer Rouge continued to battle both the Vietnamese occupation forces and the Vietnamese installed Cambodian government until 1993, when the first free UN-sponsored elections were held. The Vietnamese forces had withdrawn from Cambodia in 1988. Jan. 09 is celebrated in today’s Cambodia as a day of liberation from the evil forces of Pol Pot. The opposition sees it as the day Cambodia lost its independence to Vietnam.

It is widely held that Vietnam pursued a policy of uniting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into one Indochinese Communist state under the government or at least leadership of the Vietnamese. Vietnam did, however, lack the economic foundations. History in a way overtook that concept with the Soviet Union’s policy of perestroika and glasnost, finally its collapse. Vietnam itself introduced an opening towards the free world by its own Doi Moi (renovation) policy, which implemented free market reforms in Vietnam.

During Vietnams 10-year occupation of Cambodia they exploited Cambodia’s natural resources to bolster their own weak economy and to preserve their own resources. They literally plundered the country. Before the occupation 80% of Cambodia was covered by forest. That had dwindled to 45% at the end of their occupation in 1988. Unfortunately, the subsequent Hun Sen regime, both under the Communist banner, and as reformed democrats after 1993, continued this exploitation on a large scale.

Thailand on the other border has been a staunch U. S. ally since WW II, which contributed to its economic development. In the late 1960s and 1970s Thailand was a staging area for U. S. forces in the Vietnam War and became infamous as an R&R place for GIs in that time. Though a multitude of coup d’etats hampered modern development, Thailand nonetheless embarked on its road to prosperity in the early 1970 with the advent of international tourism. Heretofore it had been a languid, agricultural, and exotic country. It is now one of the 5 Asian Tigers with a strong economy, and it certainly dwarfs both Cambodia and Vietnam, though the latter has made great strides to become the sixth Asian Tiger.

Cambodia, on the other hand, had remained a backward country due to the Pol Pot period and the subsequent isolation from the outside world. Going to Cambodia in 1989 was like going back in time by about 50 years. Modern development did not start until after 1993, when the first free elections were held.

It would appear that it is exactly this backwardness and their economic inferiority to its neighbors that led to this sentiment of animosity towards both neighbors. These feelings were not helped either by the influx of Thais and Vietnamese after Cambodia opened its borders in 1993 to foreign investments. It was a country for modern adventurers. The state was bankrupt. There was literally no money in the State Bank, Cambodia did not have anything that could be sold to the highest bidder, no industry to speak of, there was no electrical power in most of the country, people survived on subsistence farming. Government officials plundered state coffers of its foreign reserves for their own private purposes. The only money-making business in Cambodia at that time was logging. This is what the Thais and Vietnamese came for. Though it was eventually outlawed in the 1990s, it continued unabated, spurred by corruption. About 40% of the price of the relatively cheap logs and lumber went into government officials’ pockets. Both Thais and Vietnamese businessmen took advantage of this situation, as, despite the high share of corrupt money in the price of wood, it was still cheap by Thai standards, and the Vietnamese just wanted to protect and preserve their own forests. Contributing to this fact was that logging was illegal in Malaysia, Thailand, and parts of Indonesia. These countries initially constituted the main customers for wood from Cambodia. There was and continues to be a very lucrative market for exotic semi-precious and precious hardwoods.

The years immediately following the opening of the country created a climate of free-for-all reminiscent of the robber-barons in colonial America. Adventurous businessmen from neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea streamed into Cambodia. A military clique controlled the forests and were eagerly selling, mostly illegally cut, logs to those rapacious businessmen, pocketing hefty profits. All this money, of course, bypassed the general population. This could not go unnoticed by the population who was for most part still on the verge of starvation and did not know where the food for the next day would come from. But Khmer, in fact most Asian, people are rather stoic, being devout Buddhists, accepting their poverty as their fate, even in the face of a few getting rich. The Communist dictatorship contributed its share of suppressing any nascent form individualism.

Since the Vietnamese were the main buyers of Cambodian wood over a longer period of time the Khmer people came to see them as the main villains, which were later complemented by the other Asian nationalities, such as the Thais, Malays, and Indonesians. The population also knew very well that Hun Sen had been installed by the Vietnamese government during their occupation. So they continued and still continue to see the Vietnamese as their oppressors, trying to steal their land.

Though Cambodia is nominally a democratic free country, Hun Sen and his government rule the country with an iron fist, suppressing any emerging strong opposition with any means available, including intimidation, vote-buying, phony law-suits, etc. The masses remain more or less docile as Hun Sen’s CPP network pervades all strata of government throughout Cambodia. The one opposition party was rendered leaderless at one time for almost 2 years by having the chairman, Sam Rainsy, sentenced to a jail term for defamation of Hun Sen. Sam Rainsy was later pardoned by the King and returned to Cambodia, albeit in a much more agreeable and pliable form.

Nevertheless, Sam Rainsy and his party lambaste the CPP for stuffing voter rolls with Vietnamese nationals to ensure an absolute victory for the CPP in the next elections to be held in July 2008.
Sam Rainsy is practically running on an anti-Vietnamese platform.

Current Khmer society on the whole is rather uneducated, and that includes the upper echelons of the country’s leadership. Cambodia lacks an educated elite, from which impulses can arise and be passed on to the general population. This, of course, is the result of the virtual annihilation of the existing elite under the Pol Pot regime. This tends to make people to think in very simple terms and to see things in black and white. They are not able to make educated and informed assessments and judgments of given situations. They are very susceptible and responsive to blaming outsiders for their misfortune.

Again, looking back in history this appears to be a false impression, as it was their own King who asked the French for help. And it was again their own King who did not object to an arbitrary French ruling that gave the so-called Cochin-China to Vietnam, also called Kampuchea Krom, which covered the Mekong Delta and which had and still has a Khmer minority, when French rule over their Indochinese colonies ended.

Kampuchea Krom is a very serious bone of contention between the nationalistic faction of the Khmer population, especially overseas Khmer, and the current Cambodian government and the Vietnamese government. The resultant dislike or hate from this fact is unfortunately extended to the entire Vietnamese people who are seen as land-grabbers, and generally dishonest and shifty people. But it must not be overlooked that this part of Vietnam, though originally settled by Khmer, has been Vietnamese for 4 centuries. To claim it is still Khmer and to have it ceded back now seems somewhat absurd.

It was again a Khmer king who allowed Vietnamese refugees fleeing from a war to settle in this region in the early 17th century. In the following years ever more Vietnamese settled in the region and roughly 90 years later the Vietnamese installed their own administration, which practically separated this region from Cambodia. Cambodia was too weak to counter this because of its ongoing wars with the Thais. Kampuchea Krom has been Vietnamese ever since. The only chance to get it back was in 1954, but the French granted it to Vietnam without any opposition from the then King Norodom Sihanouk.

Lately, the relatively unhindered immigration of Vietnamese in practically free Cambodia has also irked most Cambodians. They also perceive them to receive very favorable treatment by the current government. Additionally, 2 years ago Cambodia and Vietnam concluded a border treaty delineating a firm borderline for many previously contested regions with Vietnam. Large chunks of Cambodian territory are considered to have been ceded to Vietnam by the current government. This claim is made not only by the opposition party but also by the former King Sihanouk.

It appears that all the Khmer contentions that they were wronged by their neighbors is not borne out by historical facts. But nonetheless a sort of inferiority complex evolved from this, which continues to make this a very volatile issue in some quarters. The Kampuchea Krom and border issues also leave the very bitter taste that the Cambodian people always get the short end of the stick in their relationship with their neighbors.

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese ‘guest laborers’ that had come to Cambodia in search of jobs in the early 1990s were considered good and reliable workers, much better in many respects than their Khmer counterparts. This fact was underlined by many Khmer builders who exclusively used Vietnamese workers in the construction business in that time. This picture has slowly changed over the years as Khmer workers acquired the skills to put them on an equal footing with the Vietnamese.

The U. N. sponsored elections in 1993 and its preparation brought in a great number of U. N. forces from all over the world, which was seen as a great opportunity to make money by prostitutes. Consequently, a great number of Vietnamese ladies of the night came to Cambodia to ply their trade there. As a matter of fact, during that time about 90% of all prostitutes in Cambodia were Vietnamese. Decent Khmer people saw this with dismay and lumped all the Vietnamese together as pimps, prostitutes, and thieves. Seeing Cambodia as a practically lawless country at that time this also appears to have been the time when criminals began using Cambodia as a major transit point for human trafficking. Again, many of those gangsters have been Vietnamese, though many young rural Vietnamese girls are also their victims.

In comparison to Vietnam Cambodia is a free country, though not fully by Western standards. But this continues to lure Vietnamese (and Chinese) people in search of jobs to Cambodia. Unlike Vietnam (and China) life is virtually uncontrolled by any authority, nobody pays taxes, and if you are apolitical Cambodia compares very favorably to their home country. Vietnamese do not need visas to enter Cambodia but Khmer need visas to go to Vietnam.

The Thai and Vietnamese economies are much larger and stronger. Vietnam, despite its still Communist authoritarian rule, managed to elevate its country from a developing to a threshold country in the past 19 years, whereas Cambodia in almost 15 years of quasi-democratic rule is still dependent on foreign aid for 50% of its budget. Before Cambodia will reach the same level of development it will take at least another 10 to 15 years. There are, of course, vast disparities in both countries’ infrastructure, but it would seem that the rigid authoritarian Vietnamese rule accomplished more than the robber-baron rule of a capitalist Cambodia. The ruling clique there is seen to line its pocket to the detriment of their own people hampering progress for the benefit of the people.

Given all these facts and aspects it is easy to understand, at least on the surface, the dislike, aversion, or even hate some Khmer people harbor against the Vietnamese. On the other hand, there is a great number of marriages between these two nationalities. There seem to be two factions utilizing this anti-Vietnamese feeling – one, the overseas Khmer who for the most part are very nationalistic, similar to their overseas Vietnamese counterparts, and two, the opposition parties in the country. Overall the population in Cambodia might not really like their neighbors but they have come to accept their presence and live with it. At worst, I believe it may be called an ambivalence.

For the overseas Khmer, however, judging from their publications, it is outright hate. Of course, it is safe for them to rant and rave living more or less comfortably in the U. S. or France. But their contention that Vietnam will one day occupy Cambodia again is outright ludicrous. Of course, Vietnam and Thailand will pursue their interest in their dealings with Cambodia, but the times of outright colonialism in any shape or form are forever over. No Western or Asian power will stand by and watch Vietnam annex Cambodia. Thailand has never committed any acts of aggression against their neighbors in modern times anyway and one is hard-put to see Thailand invading Cambodia.

Both Thais and Vietnamese are very friendly and hospitable, the same as Khmer. It is hard to understand for a foreigner to see some Khmer to usurp these sentiments for their one-sided goals. Shouldn’t reconciliation be the major objective? One can only hope that the younger generation, which will be more educated and because of their exposure to the mass media and internet, will come to see these things in their proper context and use their minds and ambition to build a better society free from hatred against their neighbors.

Europeans know about this best. They managed to unite countries that had been at war throughout history into one union without borders, with a common currency, and a joint political body. Yes, there are still resentments among certain nationalities. It is noteworthy, though, that it is mostly lower class people who hold those resentments. The better educated the more open-minded the people will be. Similarly, once the young Khmer will have achieved at least a semblance to other nations in the region, and have gained some stature among their neighbors, those resentments or harsher sentiments will slow diminish and finally disappear, maybe not completely, but they won’t be a significant factor in their relationships with their neighbors.

As for overseas Khmer, their views ought to basically be discounted as they have no major influence in Cambodia itself. They are too far removed from events and do not have the wherewithal to play a major role in Cambodian politics. There are about 300,000 overseas Khmer in the U. S. and Europe. Most of them have enough on their hands carving out a living in their host countries to care about politics in Cambodia. Eventually, the second and third generation will assimilate into their host societies completely and not think of themselves as Khmer but as Americans and French, or whatever they are. But the present anti-Vietnamese, anti-Thai propagandists should try to educate themselves a little more in order to understand that the world is not black and white, and that fostering hate is self-defeating and negativistic. Hate has no long-term chance of survival.

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