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False friends – an Opinion Piece on the Khmer-Vietnamese Relations in Cambodia


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Flickr via Creative Commons

This picture shows the Cambodian-Vietnamese friendship monument in the middle of Phnom Penh. Behind this demonstrative show of solidarity and good relations a complicated history is hidden. The word “friendship” is not the first that an average Cambodian would think of if you ask him or her about the Vietnamese, both in neighbouring Vietnam as well as in Cambodia itself. In this blog I’d like to discuss – from my own Westerner’s perspective – how the discussion in Cambodia is being led and what I believe the future could hold so that these underlying conflicts do not escalate into violence

A fleeting look back at the past

I’m not a historian, and I’m not going into the details of the history of the Cambodian-Vietnamese relations here, as it is complex and multi-layered. Instead I would like to discuss the difficult relationship as it remains today – though it is no longer plagued by violence, the relationship has aggressive undertones. It suffices to say that many Cambodians remember prominently parts of the former Angkor Empire (9th – 15th century) having been annexed by Vietnam many centuries ago. Subsequently the Vietnamese aided the Cambodian Khmer Rouge in toppling the deeply unpopular Lon Nol regime in the mid-1970s, before the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime under their radically communist leader Pol Pot turned on Vietnam and waged war against this country. Eventually the Vietnamese army prevailed and drove the Khmer Rouge into the jungle, and Vietnam remained in the country for several years. Today’s government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, is seen as ‘too’ pro-Vietnamese and in the course of Asian integration through (link: http://www.asean.org/) ASEAN, visa conditions will be loosened and it will be easier for Vietnamese and Cambodians to travel to each other’s countries.

Deep-seated fears plague Cambodian perception of Vietnamese

The first idea for this blog post came when I visited an afternoon forum at the Cambodia Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh on the topic “‘Anti-Vietnamese Sentiment‘ in Cambodia?” When I arrived I was expecting the participants, who themselves were mostly young, progressive intellectuals, to lead a discussion aimed at calling for tolerance and good relations. However, even in this circle of purportedly liberal people, the discourse was hostile and defined by fear of the Vietnamese.

On all issues touched upon the discussions revealed deep-seated fears that many Cambodians have for their large neighbour, and how they project this onto the many ethnic Vietnamese living in their country. I was struck by how ‘irrational’ and latently racist some of the comments were. Constantly referring to past centuries there was a poignant fear that the Vietnamese will annex further territories. This sentiment mixed with an anxiety that the many Vietnamese who have moved here to invest in businesses in the past few years will multiply and take over the country from the inside.

There was a palpable fear of “them all” coming and taking Cambodian jobs as many Vietnamese are better qualified – an irrational Angst given the significantly lower wages in Cambodia than in Vietnam. And the participants in the debate worried about over-fishing by the Vietnamese living on the Mekong river, an ironic twist given that these people live on the river as non-Cambodians are not allowed to own land in Cambodia.

Most problematic in my mind, however, is the conflation of people who have lived in Cambodia for several generations with those who have moved here in the past few years. I grant the Cambodians a certain fear of mass migration by better-qualified neighbours, but this debate is mixed up with the discussion of ethnic Vietnamese who have lived in Cambodia for decades, yet do not belong to the Khmer ethnic majority in the country.

Dialogue and integration could help ease tensions

These fears are whipped up into a frenzy by opposition politicians, frantically attempting to find any way to undermine the current government. This anti-Vietnamese rhetoric will not damage the government, which is firmly in place faced by a fragmented and chaotic opposition, and will serve only to build a more hostile (and potentially violent) climate of ethnic relations in the country.

I believe that a change of opinion can only happen when the Khmer majority is forced to actually interact with the Vietnamese population, with whom there is very little contact in the mainstream population now. Then the majority will see that most of the Vietnamese living in Cambodia have been here for a long time, suffer from the same problems, enjoy the same aspects of Cambodian life and would better seen not as a threat but as compatriots.

This interaction will come naturally in the course of ASEAN integration, but the process will be accompanied by mounting fears of the majority of the Cambodians. It would be better for the young to already seek out dialogue now with the Vietnamese Cambodians, and to talk to each other about their fears and perceptions, lest the latent conflict continue to be manipulated by the opposition and ultimately turn violent. Possibly this dialogue can take its first steps online on a platform such as Beyond Violence – if you are Cambodian and feel passionately about this, we’d love to hear from you!



Tim Williams is the Executive Director of Beyond Violence and is also a research fellow at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Marburg University and a PhD scholar at the Free University in Berlin. He was in Cambodia as part of his research on motivations for individuals to participate in violence, including interviews with former members of the Khmer Rouge.


Source picture: https://www.flickr.com/photos/67011297@N07/7105414819/

Written by Tim Williams and published on 03-April-2014




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