The arrests of lawmakers critical of the Cambodian government’s border policy could revive historical suspicion and fear toward Vietnam, representatives of both sides of Cambodia’s political divide agree.
Senator Hong Sok Hour was arrested in August last year and Lower House member Um Sam An was seized in April, both over comments and activities relating to the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
The pair are opposition politicians who have been outspoken about what they say is the Cambodian government’s failure both to protect the country’s territorial integrity and to control immigration from the populous neighboring country.
Representatives of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) agree that Cambodia’s diplomatic relations with Vietnam have been unaffected by the arrests.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the two detained parliamentarians had wronged by using fake documents to incite and mobilize opposition to the CPP-led government.
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay rebutted the accusation, insisting that Sok Hour and Sam An were carrying out their “responsibilities” as representatives of the people, and that they were acting for the sake of Cambodia’s territorial integrity.
“Politicians in our country sometimes act out due to their suffering,” Son Chhay told VOA Khmer.
“They see the history of our country and believe that open action to gather support on territorial issues is one solution they believe can help protect the country.”
But the arrests have given ammunition to those who have long peddled conspiracy theories about Vietnam and ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia.
Many Cambodians still hold suspicions that the larger neighbor wishes to “attempt to swallow” Cambodia, said Sambo Manara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Such suspicions are often fed by harking back to historical events, which many see as proof that Vietnam ultimately wishes to colonize Cambodia, reactivating the concept of Indochina that existed under the French.
Son Chhay said that documentary evidence and the work of historians proves the past intention of Vietnam to reestablish an Indochinese Federation under its own leadership.
“The historical experience of the endless losses of land, and fear [of losing more land], always come into the mind of the Cambodian people,” he said.
“Our country is small with a small number of people and is situated in between two big countries,” Son Chhay added, also referring to Thailand, with which Cambodia also shares a long border with some areas the subject of historical dispute. “The shrinking of our land derived from the invasions of the two big countries.”
The historical record has provided fertile ground for propaganda in Cambodia, from the distant past up to the present.
Just last month, CNRP President Sam Rainsy, currently in self-imposed exile fleeing what many consider spurious charges in the courts, revived this trope once again during a speech to members of the Cambodian diaspora in the United States.
Rainsy asserted that he would return to Cambodia and submit himself to jail, and even death, if Cambodia is totally liberated from “the Vietnamese claws,” according to a transcript of the speech posted on his Facebook page.
“[It] is not between Cambodian and Cambodian, but between Cambodians and Yuon,” he said, using a Khmer term some consider as a derogatory way to refer to Vietnamese people.
In the present reality, the idea of Cambodia losing land on a significant scale to Vietnam is far from likely. The border is still not properly demarcated, however, leading to localized disputes, which the two opposition lawmakers sought to highlight.
Researchers say the historical antecedents, deeply ingrained suspicions and simple fear are the main factors behind contemporary anti-Vietnamese sentiment and racism against ethnic Vietnamese residents of Cambodia.
An illustrative myth is found in the phrase, “Don’t spill the master’s tea.” Manara, the historian, said this derives from a story that during a 19th century invasion of Khmer territory, the Vietnamese buried three Cambodians in the ground up to their necks and used their heads as stones on which to balance their cooking pots.
Researcher Eng Kok-Thay, who has studied ethnicity in Cambodia, traces the suspicion of Vietnamese back further, to the “March to the South,” or Nam Tien, when the ancestors of the modern Vietnamese, beginning in the 11th century, launched an expansion of their territory that would eventually see them take control of the Mekong Delta.
The expansion saw the Vietnamese occupy the ancient Champa capital of Vijaya in 1471, and conquer the entire Champa kingdom by the 19th century.
In the 17th century, Vietnamese settlers occupied the Mekong Delta, known to Cambodians as Kampuchea Krom. The territory became part of modern-day Vietnam after the French colonial government assigned it to that country, without the consent of Cambodian leaders, in 1949.
It was this and the complete disappearance of Champa as a civilization that led Cambodian writer Nuon Khoen to theorize in 1970 that Vietnam would embark upon a “March to the West” and ultimately take control of Cambodia and Laos.
This theory gained especial traction during the Khmer Rouge era. After taking Phnom Penh in 1975, the Khmer Rouge expelled many ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia across the border.
Using anti-Vietnamese sentiment as its foundational ideology, the Khmer Rouge also massacred Cambodians perceived as having ties to Vietnam. Some were accused of “having a Vietnamese head with a Cambodian body.”
Fears of imminent western expansion by Vietnam were only confirmed for many when Vietnam, with the help of a force of Khmer Rouge defectors, ousted the regime in 1979 and founded the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, in what is variously described as either an invasion or liberation.
For many Cambodians, the flow of Vietnamese immigrants into Cambodia in the proceeding period, and the presence of approximately 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers on Cambodian soil, confirmed Nuon Khoeun’s theory.
And even after the withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989 and U.N.-backed elections in 1993, suspicions remained.
Researcher Jennifer Berman, the author of “No Place Like Home: Anti-Vietnamese Discrimination and Nationality in Cambodia,” said these suspicions mean that for some Cambodians, every ethnic Vietnamese in the country—from the helpless noodle seller to the construction worker to the sex worker—is a possible spy of Hanoi.
This racist mindset has put ethnic Vietnamese in a risky, marginalized position, she said. Many ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia without documentation or citizenship, while in Vietnam they are regarded as Cambodian nationals.
Ethnic Vietnamese have settled along rivers and on the Tonle Sap lake in floating villages, and are vulnerable to poverty, malnutrition, little access to education and unemployment.
Keo Duong, a researcher at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh, said the ethnic Vietnamese population in Cambodia consists of five different groupings. Most either lived in Cambodia since before the 1970s, were expelled by the Khmer Rouge and returned after 1979; or arrived during the People’s Republic, when movement across the border was broadly free.
There are also those who have migrated legally since 1993, as well as a contingent who travel back and forth for business purposes, and, finally, illegal immigrants who have arrived since 1993.
Many of those who arrived in the 1980s did not obtain legal documents and are now unable to prove that they are Cambodian nationals, said Duong.
Son Chhay said his party wanted dialogue on issues of Vietnamese migration and the border.
“The Cambodia National Rescue Party wants mutual understanding, good cooperation between the two main parties not to make the border and territorial issues pretexts to create chaos and agitation, which only serves to destroy national unity,” said Son Chhay.
Chheang Vun, a CPP lawmaker, however, said the opposition could do more to help the government resolve the issues. Opposition lawmakers should use the platform of the National Assembly to raise concerns, rather than making public claims about the issue that can spur racism, he said, seemingly in reference to Sok Hour and Sam An’s actions.
“Territory and immigration issues are national issues for us all,” said Chheang Vun. “We should try to resolve the issues rather than take advantage of them.”