Anti Vietnamese sentiment has been part of Cambodian culture for an exceedingly long time, and has only been on the rise since the hotly contested 2013 elections, in which the opposition CNRP party made animosity towards the Vietnamese, and their supposed colonial desires, a central tenet of its platform.
Spearheaded by Khmer Krom minority groups, anti-Vietnamese Cambodians announced five days of protests at the end of this September, demanding apology from a Vietnamese embassy spokesman for his remarks about the ownership of the Mekong River Delta area.
Some context, perhaps, would be useful here. Kampuchea Krom people hail from what is now Southern Vietnam, a region that once was part of the Cambodian Empire prior to the 1600s. The Vietnamese began to settle there and eventually took Prey Nokor – now Saigon – from Cambodian administration. The French partitioned the region to Vietnam in 1949, and it was deemed part of South Vietnam by the 1954 Geneva Accords – a state of affairs that the Kampuchea Krom population has never accepted.
Distinctly unwisely considering the current political climate, Vietnamese Embassy first counselor Tran Van Thong commented in June that Kampuchea Krom had been part of Vietnam for a “very long time” prior the French hand-over, enraging many Kampuchea Krom people, and Cambodians who believe that Vietnam continues to hold colonial designs on their territory.
Today’s protest was the second of a planned five days of protest against the Vietnamese at the Vietnamese Embassy on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh. A mixed crowd of various ages, genders, and professions – monks to motodops – gathered on Norodom Boulevard and were not allowed to pass past Street 240.
The group convened at the park near Wat Botum, speaking for a while about the need for teachers to recieve higher salaries. They then proceeded down Sothearos Boulevard, walking all the way to Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and the turn-off to the Vietnamese Embassy. With no evident plans to threaten Hun Sen or government offices, authorities let them pass unhindered, and permitted them to block traffic as they passed.
A metal roadblock had been set up at the rather French colonial looking Vietnamese Embassy, blocking direct access to the front. However, only a few police were in evidence, many napping, most looking rather under-stimulated. The authorities have promised to crack down on the protest, per the Phnom Penh Post, but there was rather little evidence of this on display at the Vietnamese Embassy this afternoon.
As the protest wore on and hundreds of people milled around curiously, someone burned a Vietnamese flag, and others stamped on Vietnamese flags, a sign of profound disrespect in Southeast Asian culture. Someone had made enormous quantities of anti-Vietnamese stickers, and they were being slapped with abandon on trucks, motorbikes, and, quite popularly, people’s asses and ankles. The stickers reminded me of the common 969 Movement stickers one sees constantly in Yangon, stuck on taxi-cabs, food carts, and lamp posts.
Protesters draped anti-Vietnamese posters over the barricades, and some derisively threw discarded boxes of rice and water bottles over them and onto the street. The police leaned on the barricades by the sidewalk and looked on with mild interest, some taking naps on the sidewalk by the embassy interest.
Tellingly, a massive police presence in full riot gear had been assigned to the area near Hun Sen’s House at Independence Monument – indicating that the Cambodian authorities are considerably more concerned about challenges to the ruling party than they are about threats to the Vietnamese.
Where is all this going, and how will Vietnam respond?