Behind the bitter sentiment toward the Vietnamese in Cambodia is a forgotten, significant piece of history that only goes back about 60 years, according to a US researcher.
Shawn McHale, a professor at George Washington University, told a US audience recently that the period between 1945 and 1949 marked the turning point in the sour relationship between the two neighbors, including Cambodia’s claim to land in southern Vietnam, Vietnamese settlement and intervention in Cambodia and anti-Vietnamese propaganda by the French.
Many Cambodians point to a long history of strife with their eastern neighbors. But past researchers have also failed to look at the Vietnamese perspective, McHale said, in arguments rejected by other researchers and representatives of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom, the Khmer ethnic group living in southern Vietnam.
As the French were leaving what was then called Indochina, an area that took up Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, they partitioned the Mekong Delta into southern Vietnam. However, McHale says, recognizing that anti-Vietnamese sentiment could be stirred up in the Khmers, they used the latter in an alliance against the Viet Minh, the anti-colonialist group fighting for independence in northern Vietnam.
“The French actually played off, in certain times, the ethnic Khmer against the ethnic Vietnamese,” McHale told a group of some 20 professors and students. “The French actually came to realize that the ethnic Khmers could be a staunch ally against the communist-led Viet Minh, so they allied more with ethnic Khmers.”
McHale claims the French aligned with Cambodia, staging racist propaganda against the Vietnamese. That anti-Vietnamese sentiment was then picked up by the Khmer Rouge, whose racist policies led to the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese.
McHale, who took several research trips to Vietnam and three trips to Cambodia, criticized past researchers for not looking at root causes leading to the controversy between Cambodia and Vietnam. Researchers tend to look at the existing hatred between Cambodia and Vietnam, but they did not take into account the periods when both sides got along, he said.
“The fact is the Khmers and Vietnamese manage to get along most of the time, whether they are in Vietnam or in Cambodia,” he said. “So any explanation has to explain why people didn’t get along sometimes and other times [they]…actually end up butchering each other.”
While some research looks at discrimination against the Khmer ethnic group by Vietnamese, they fail to look at the voice of the Vietnamese. For instance, McHale said, the Vietnamese suffered under a movement he called “Kap Yuon” or, the Yuon Beheadings, which he said took place in 1945. Yuon is derogatory term in Khmer for the Vietnamese.
Some of McHale’s arguments, however, met criticism from the Khmer Krom community.
“The French did not favor the Khmers more than the Vietnamese. If they did, they would not have given Khmer territory to Vietnam,” said Thach Setha, a former Cambodian senator and chairman of Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, in a phone interview with VOA Khmer. “This is an analysis that I would say does not match with the real history of the Khmer people.”
It was not territorial issues alone that led to the rivalry between the two neighbors, but a long history of cultural and religious repression, he said.
Some researchers point to periods between the 17th Century and 19th centuries, when Cambodia fell under Vietnamese hegemony.
“There were uprisings against the Vietnamese in the 18th Century, when the Vietnamese forced the Khmers to change their traditions and to dress like Vietnamese,” said Ros Chantraboth, a Cambodian history and vice president of the Cambodian Royal Academy.
The “Kap Yuon” uprising could not have taken place during the near-century rule of the French, which ended in 1954, he said.
Whatever the past history, more recent events have also strained the relationship between citizens in the two countries.
The Cambodian government enjoys a strong relationship with Vietnam, with many of its senior officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, placed in administrative positions after Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and began a decade-long occupation.
Now, Vietnamese associations exist in all 24 municipalities and provinces in Cambodia.
“In general, Vietnamese and Cambodians live together in harmony,” said Sem Chi, chairman of the Vietnamese Association in Cambodia.
Still, fear of Vietnamese integration into Cambodia, whether through political influence from Hanoi or by immigration from Vietnamese into Cambodia, is a sensitive subject for some everyday Cambodians.
McHale argues that a better understanding of the history between the two neighbors, and the period of 1945, could help smooth tensions between them.