Though Vietnamese Troops Have Gone, Their Influence and Connections Go On

Nothing was Spontaneous

Jacques Bekaert well remembers the day the final flank of Vietnamese troops pulled out of Cambodia. It was September 1989, and people quietly lined the streets in Phnom Penh to witness the end to 10 years of foreign occupation. “The events were so carefully orchestrated. As the troops were moving from village to village, there were very few spontaneous spectators,” recalls Bekaert, now charge d’affaires at the embassy of the Order of Malta. “In fact, nothing was spontaneous at the time. As the procession moved through Phnom Penh, there was an arranged delegation of workers, an arranged delegation of peasants, an arranged delegation of women…in place to cheer them on.

“That’s how things always were” in the communist People’s Republic of Kampuchea, Bekaert says. “But it also seemed that the Cam­bodians had something to prove. That they wanted to tell themselves—and the rest of the world—that the Vietnamese were gone. For good.”

Even though a decade has passed since then, some might say the Cambodian government still has something to prove. Whether behind closed doors or in public speeches, officials in the ruling Cambodian Peo­ple’s Par­ty consistently purport that although it was the Viet­namese who put them in power, they are independent of their one-time mentors.

“Our government leadership is not communist anymore,” argues Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Chem Widhya, who in 1989 served as an adviser to Prime Min­­ister Hun Sen. “It is most democratic how we do things here now. We make our own decisions.”

While party officials regularly distance themselves from Vietnam, many Cambodians, who after centuries of conflict still harbor deep-seated scorn for their neighbors to the east, remain suspicious of Hanoi.

And no matter how many times the government cites an end to Cold War ties with Vietnam, few can deny that relations between the countries’ ruling parties and military leaders are as close as ever.

The CPP, before 1991 known as the Peo­ple’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea, constantly is criticized by opponents for looking over its shoulder toward the east before making major decisions. Many contend some party members’ deference goes as far as to form a split within CPP that pits the “Vietna­mese puppets” against the “real Cambodians.”

However, Jacques Bekaert, who wrote a column about Cambodia for a Bangkok newspaper from 1983 to 1993, defends the party’s independence. “During the occupation, the Viet­namese depended on the CPP, the same way the West depended on (then anti-Vietnam party) Fun­cin­pec.

“But I would not say Hun Sen is a puppet of theirs anymore. You work side by side in a communist party….you inevitably form links that last a long time. And in Southeast Asia, these links mean more than anything.”


‘We have them to thank’

An independent journalist in Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation was rare, Jacques Bekaert observes. In fact, most reporters were allowed only to write stories favorable to Vietnam. One of the few government critics back then was an upcoming journalist who ran a newspaper called Kampuchea from 1979 to 1990.

Now a spokesman for the CPP and secretary of state for the Ministry of Information, Khieu Kan­harith is remembered for remaining independent of the Vietnamese, despite the fact that he belonged to the party and worked for one of a handful of government-run newspapers.

Back then, Vietnamese operatives were stationed in every ministry and every newspaper, and for several months, Khieu Kanharith’s newspaper was published out of Hanoi.

But as the editor, he eventually grew too critical of corruption and nepotism in government, he says, and in 1990 the party sacked him and put him under a somewhat informal house arrest for more than a year.

“In a communist party, even now, you cannot be seen as too liberal, as too critical, as an individual,” he says. “Being vocal does not make you too popular.”

But despite the Vietnam’s heavy-handed approach to Cambodia throughout the 1980s, Khieu Kanharith contends that the CPP would be foolish not to look outward in the next millennium. “You cannot avoid your former friend,” he argues, “But Vietnam no longer is our only inspiration.”

Which countries hold the most influence in Cam­bodia must be taken into historical perspective, he argues.

Although Vietnamese ideologues trained many of Cambodia’s early communists, who eventually assembled into the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s cadre were already at odds with their tutors when they took Phnom Penh in 1975. By 1977, their differences exploded into full-scale fighting that eventually led to the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese and their occupation of Cambodia beginning in 1979.

The Vietnamese routinely were backed by their Cold War allies in the Soviet Union, while the Khmer Rouge enjoyed support from China—a rivalry that for some time pit the two communist superpowers against each other.

“China, Asean countries, Vietnam—all were vying to keep control in Cambodia, and all have their interests in Cambodia today,” Khieu Kanharith says. “Now, Cambodia must pursue strong relations with all of Asia and not limit itself like it did before.”

Awaiting customers beneath the Vietnam-Cam­bodia Liberation Monument, cyclo driver Hang Chandara, too, remembers the day the Viet­namese left Cambodia once and for all.

A police officer in Kompong Speu during the occupation, the 35-year-old recognizes how conflicted Cambodians’ emotions are toward the Vietnamese. “We have the Viet­na­mese to thank,” he says, nodding toward the monument that anti-government protesters defaced after last year’s elections.“But we have such mixed feelings about them. We wonder if we’ll ever be free of them.”


‘A very promising relationship’

Vietnam’s ambassador to Cambodia, Nguy­en Duy Hung, arrived in Cam­bodia roughly one year ago. Young and optimistic, he does not harbor conflicted memories of the Viet­na­mese occupation. Instead, he says diplomacy between the two countries is better than ever.

“Relations over the last year have been excellent. Since I have arrived, there have been a lot of high-level visits [to Vietnam]. That’s one of the characteristics of a very promising relationship.”

Whether for personal, medical or political reasons, about one high-ranking Cambodian government official treks to Hanoi each month.

In the last six months, CPP and Senate Pres­i­dent Chea Sim, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Nam­hong, director of National Police Hok Lun­dy, Nation­al Assembly President Prince Noro­dom Ranariddh, Minister of Infor­mation Lu Laysreng, Minister of Tourism Veng Serey­vuth and others have visited Viet­nam.

And last month, the prime ministers of Viet­nam, Laos and Cambodia held a visible trilateral summit in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

“In Vietnam, we have only one party, but our party has relationships with both the CPP and Funcinpec,” says Hung.

But it’s the CPP that forms the closest ties with Vietnam, sources maintain. One CPP Inter­ior Ministry police general recently said he rarely worries about his rivals in Cambodia, because he always is “protected by his friends in Vietnam.”

Hung could not refute the CPP’s connection to Vietnam. “I do not deny the fact that some of the people in the CPP have a strong relationship with Viet­nam….Ten years’ occupation is a long time. Many CPP were trained in Vietnam, many speak Viet­namese. Thus, relationships are maintained, naturally.”

Eloquently responding to years of criticism that the CPP is merely a Vietnamese puppet, Hor Namhong denies that ties with Vietnam are any better than with other nations.

Cambodia is strengthening its relations with the entire region, if even the world, maintains Hor Namhong, who earlier this month made his first official visit to Thailand and already this year has visited China, the US, Canada and Cuba.

“If Vietnam had not come to save us [from the Khmer Rouge] in 1979, then who? What country would have? If there was no 1979, there would be no Cambodia today. When I came back to Phnom Penh in 1979, there was no water to drink, no electricity, no state. We had to create from zero….It’s true Vietnam helped us, but that does not mean we have to follow them for everything,” Hor Namhong says. “We are a sovereign nation, and they recognize that.”

‘A pact’

No one questions that after the Vietnamese troops pulled out in 1989, military relations were at best tense, considering how many Viet­na­mese soldiers lost their lives and those who went home to an economically depleted nation after what many saw as a fruitless tour of duty in Cam­bodia. Moreover, as Cambodia has opened its doors to the West somewhat, its leaders have worked not only to distance themselves from their communist past but have begun to demobilize troops in search of a more civil society.

However, according to notes obtained from a late July meeting between Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian military officials, defense policies between the three nations might echo the Cold War era, despite the fall of communism worldwide.

“After years of loose relations, this was the first time that the Royal Cam­­bodian Armed Forces visited with Vietnam and Laos,” read the notes, written by a member of the Cambodian delegation. “We agreed to open up military relations and to settle all problems through peaceful means. “Previously, Cambodia asked for help, but Vietnam has refused help whatsoever.”

Now, Cambodian military doctors, soldiers and court officers will go to train in Vietnam, the notes indicated. The countries also agreed “not to provide any support for any political force that fights against its own country on foreign soil,” the notes read.

Just one week after the meeting, a reputed anti-communist with an organization called Free Vietnam allegedly was arrested by Phnom Penh police operatives. Eyewitnesses confirmed the man was taken from his home in Pailin by uniformed men and never seen again. But government officials denied the arrest ever happened. Although Western analysts agree the July meeting and subsequent arrest do not represent a large-scale shift in military policy, one contends it could be the first step toward one.

Once political, economic and informational ties start to strengthen, so too will those of the military forces. Noting the recent trilateral meeting in Laos and other high-level visits, he says he would not be surprised if military relations escalate from individual training sessions to group exercises.

“Once that happens, it’s a dead giveaway that some pact has been formed. That’s not to say it will happen tomorrow…. but if it does, it could make people very nervous.”


‘The ideology is gone’

Cambodians are never too quick to forget their eastern neighbor’s “Viet­namization” policy throughout the 1980s: Respect Cambodia’s borders but work to transform the country from within.

Vietnamese ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung argues, however, that these communists policies are now dead. Instead, maintaining solid relations means fostering a free flow of goods and ideas.

For example, Vietnam will offer 100 scholarships next year to Cam­bo­dians to study in Vietnam; the Vietnamese Ministry of Information just signed an agreement with its Cambodian counterpart to open up information lines; and trade remains steady between the two nations, at a recorded $130 million a year in consumer goods, according to the Viet­namese embassy.

Yet the ambassador concedes that the more effective means of gaining a foothold in Cambodia—aid and investment—are virtually nonexistent from his cash-strapped nation. “Right now, we have very little to offer Cambodia in terms of money,” he says.

To Cambodia’s west lies a powerful economic power in Thailand, yet it’s one that throughout the Cold War was much more geared toward containing communist Indochina than maintaining strong relations with it.

“Cambodia’s culture is so much more similar to Thailand than to Vietnam, yet ideology between (communist nations) formed the closer ties,” says Nathapol Khantahiran, first secretary at the Thai embassy in Cambodia.

“But now that the Cold War is over, the ideology is gone. Economically, Vietnam has no capacity to help, and their influence is slowing down.”

As Cambodia inches toward a multi-party democracy and seeks to develop its economy, staying close to Vietnam will not earn it a place in the global economy, analysts agree.

Instead, Cambodia has joined Asean and secured sizable investment and aid from Japan and the West.

Donor countries retain their hold on Cambodia with their aid, diplomats agree, but they still express concern over whether Cambodia’s admission into Asean was in part a ploy by Vietnam to secure a voting bloc of former communist countries.

They point to the trilateral summit in Vientiane and note that the meeting was initiated by Vietnam. “There’s no question that three votes are better than one,” an Asian diplomat cautioned.

But Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Chem Widhya quickly dispels these concerns and says Cambodia, like much of the world, is looking to reduce the importance of national borders.

‘We don’t owe them forever’

Nationalism is something that Saro Sivutha, leader of the virulent anti-Vietnamese group Students for Democracy, will not let go.

The 27-year-old student leader has led numerous protests, calling on the government to end illegal Vietnamese immigration to Cambodia and remain tough in ongoing border talks with Vietnam.

“It’s not ethnic; it’s political,” Saro Sivutha maintains. “We don’t hate the Vietnamese people. We just hate their invasive policies toward Cambodia.”

Cambodian rights workers who’ve lived here for decades said much of the bitterness stems from years of war. “This racism—and that’s what it is—toward the Vietnamese did not exist before the Khmer Rouge and all the fighting,” says Licadho human rights group founder Kek Galabru.

Diplomat Jacques Bekaert puts the ethnic conflict in even more crude terms.

“If you went down to the market and told everyone that Vietnamese people were eating Cambodian babies, they would believe you,” he conjectures.

In September 1998, during a tainted rice wine scare, at least four ethnic Vietnamese were killed on Phnom Penh streets by angry mobs who accused the victims of poisoning food and water supplies.

As Cambodia’s ruling party gets closer to Vietnam, many worry this hatred—which stems from centuries of Vietnamese annexation of Cambodian soil—eventually could boil over and cause a major ethnic conflict.

It’s an irony that political analyst Kao Kim Hourn says is hard to get his hands around: how high-level officials could be so close to the Vietnamese while the average person harbors so much anger.

For instance, this month marked one of very few times the Cambodian government attempted to deal with Vietnamese immigrants, when municipal officials kicked hundreds of boat people out of Phnom Penh.

“The Cambodian government should not be selective when it comes to dealing with illegal immigrants,” Kao Kim Hourn says, suggesting that the CPP-led government will do little to anger its friends in Vietnam.

“We may owe them for certain things. But we don’t owe them forever. One of these days we will have to end our debt to the Vietnamese. There’s no such thing as everlasting indebtedness.”


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