Protesters Say Foreign Minister Condoned Flag Burning

A leader of recent protests against inflammatory remarks by a Vietnamese Embassy spokesman said Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Tuesday condoned the burning of a Vietnamese flag in front of the embassy last week.

The protesters were enraged by embassy spokesman Tran Van Thong’s comments on the radio in June rejecting a common claim among Cambodians that Kampuchea Krom, in present day southern Vietnam, belonged to Cambodia before it was ceded by colonial France to Vietnam in 1949.

Sok Sothear, of the Khmer Youth Alliance for Democracy, one of the groups demanding a retraction from the spokesman, was part of a delegation that met with Foreign Ministry officials Tuesday about their plans for more protests.

According to Ms. Sothear, Mr. Namhong had no qualms about the burning of the flag.

“Hor Namhong said that to burn the flag is normal in a democratic country; it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It is the same as [Interior Ministry spokesman] Khieu Sopheak said a few days ago.”

In an article published by Radio Free Asia on Friday, Mr. Sopheak was quoted as saying: “Protesters commonly burn flags around the world. It may be unethical, but as long as it is done during a lawful protest, it is acceptable.”

“Cambodia is different from Vietnam,” he adds. “Cambodia adheres to a form of liberal democracy with a multiparty system. Cambodia allows freedom of expression under the framework of the law.”

Last week, a spokesman for the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry called on Cambodian authorities to take action against the flag-burners and impose measures to ensure that such acts, which Hanoi said threaten to sour relations with Phnom Penh, are not repeated.

Mr. Namhong could not be reached for comment. Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong and Secretary of State Long Visalo, who also attended the meeting, could not be reached, either.

Ms. Sothear said Foreign Ministry delegation told her that the Vietnamese ambassador and spokesman would soon be replaced and asked the protest organizers to wait and judge their work before deciding whether or not to revive their demonstration. She said they agreed.

The new ambassador, Thach Du, is ethnically Khmer Krom, according to Vietnamese state media.

Mr. Namhong’s alleged remarks in the meeting stand in stark contrast to comments National Assembly President Heng Samrin reportedly made about the flag burning during a state visit to Hanoi.

Paraphrasing Mr. Samrin, Vietnam’s Nhandan newspaper reported on Monday that he said that Cambodia had “applied strong measures to deal with the incident and punish violators.”

Mr. Samrin, it adds, pledged that Cambodia would “do its best, using the law, to prevent such actions from repeating.”

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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