Vietnam's hidden hand in Cambodia's impasse
By Hassan A Kasem| Asia Times Online | 9 October 2013
Cambodia, for all its pretensions towards sovereignty and democracy, has yet to free itself from neighboring Vietnam's political and strategic grip 20 years after United Nations-organized elections ended its debilitating civil war. The international community has since invested over US$2 billion on peace initiatives to repair the damage done by Vietnam's 1979 invasion and seizure of power. Yet Hanoi continues to exercise covert power over the country through its proxy ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP).
Most Khmer citizens fail to fathom the depths of the ongoing subterfuge. Many have conveniently chosen ignorance over truth, as is common among traumatized populations in post-conflict societies. Western audiences, including the international donor community that continues to bankroll the CPP's corrupt and compromised tenure, should be less easily forgiven for turning a blind eye to Vietnam's still strong command over the country.
Some in the West saw Vietnam as a magnanimous liberator in 1979, an occupying army that rescued Cambodia from the radical Khmer Rouge regime's massacre of its own people. But Hanoi's use of force turned a difficult situation to its geopolitical advantage, putting an end to the Khmer Rouge regime's nationalistic stance vis-a-vis Vietnam, including its combative insistence on resolutions to border disputes held over from the French colonial era.
Hanoi's invasion and occupation with over 200,000 troops under the direction of communist revolutionary, politician and diplomat Le Duc Tho further weakened a nation reeling from the anti-communist war and Khmer-on-Khmer death and destruction. A number of brave revolutionary leaders who fell from grace at Hanoi's behest, including ex-prime minister Pen Sovann, have claimed Vietnamese troops deliberately looted and plundered national treasures and wealth during the invasion. Those installed into power by Hanoi, including incumbent prime minister Hun Sen, subsequently brushed off the theft as a mere war casualty.
To some Khmers, including many opposition politicians attached to the aptly named Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hanoi is able to maintain its grip on Cambodia through its historical ties to Hun Sen and the CPP. CNRP members have not spoken without substantiation, feeling it would be morally wrong to exchange denial of truth for peace and power-sharing. The late King Norodom Sihanouk, for instance, said pointedly at a Paris meeting with his compatriots in early 1990 that, "it's meaningless to accept peace without independence, sovereignty and dignity".
After occupying Cambodia for more than a decade from 1979-89, Hanoi developed an elaborate, behind-the-scenes network of control that is in many ways still in place today. It first installed a proxy administration in 1979 known as the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) run by the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which morphed into the CPP in the early 1990's after Vietnamese troops ostensibly withdrew from the country.
The KPRP was a direct offshoot of the Indochina communist Party formed in the 1930s with Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as its head. Following its unilateral and unmonitored symbolic withdrawal of troops in 1989, hundreds, if not thousands, of Vietnamese "experts" stayed behind, adopted Khmer names and continued to assist their comrades at every important government ministry and department. Nowadays, only locals can tell who is really Vietnamese and who is Khmer.
Hanoi created a perfect ally in the CPP to defend and protect its substantial interests in Cambodia, ranging from land border areas, to maritime concessions, to allowances for illegal Vietnamese immigrants to settle unperturbed throughout the country. Many CPP leaders and high-ranking officials would not have their prestigious positions and titles without Vietnamese backing: they know it, and Hanoi knows it.
Foreign academics have corroborated in detail the ongoing special relationship. Michael Benge, a former American prisoner of war in Vietnam who speaks fluent Vietnamese and many ethnic minority dialects, wrote in 2007 that "Hanoi maintains a contingent of 3,000 troops, a mixture of special forces and intelligence agents, with tanks and helicopters, in a huge compound about two kilometers outside Phnom Penh right next to Hun Sen's Tuol Krassaing fortress near Takhmau".
Extending that analysis, local intelligence sources have said when border clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops first erupted in 2008, at least one battalion of Vietnamese elite units was put on standby to assist their Cambodian comrades.
Dr Markus Karbaum, a German academic, revealed in an April Southeast Asia Globe article that Vietnamese officials shared dossiers kept on Cambodia's current ruling elite with the former East Germany's Stasi soon after their defection from the Khmer Rouge in 1977. A young Hun Sen, whose real name according to his dossier was "Hun Bonal", referred to himself as "Hai Phuc", a Vietnamese name, apparently to ingratiate himself with Hanoi. He had served as a Khmer Rouge battalion commander but downplayed his role in commanding over 2,000 soldiers along their shared border at a time the Khmer Rouge had launched many violent cross-border assaults into Vietnam.
The Stasi archive reveals that Hun Sen and other current CPP leaders were first placed in a detention camp and ordered by Vietnamese authorities to write their own biographies. Vietnam's own assessments of those who sought to shift their allegiance to Hanoi were often unforgiving. Current CPP stalwart and president of the Cambodian Senate Chea Sim, for instance, was characterized as "conciliatory, craven and undecided". Heng Samrin, CPP honorary president and a National Assembly chairman, is referred to in the Stasi archive as of "a low education .. [He] does not talk a lot and sometimes he has an inferiority complex ... his political understanding is limited".
While Vietnamese-backed CPP politicians have unquestionably grown into their roles over the years, these intelligence assessments are noteworthy considering Cambodia has been ruled or co-ruled uninterrupted by the CPP ever since it was first installed into power after Vietnam's 1979 invasion. While younger CPP rank and file members are known to have grown weary of the same old names and faces of their party leaders, any generational transition is complicated by Vietnam's continued influence over the party and its historical ties to the old guard.
The CNRP's repeated reference to CPP leaders as "puppets" of Vietnam is thus not without historical validity. The examples of kowtowing to Hanoi during Hun Sen's 28 consecutive years in power are multiple. On February 26, 1986, while Cambodia was still under direct Vietnamese occupation, Hun Sen signed a directive ordering local authorities to facilitate the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants all over the county, particularly in and around the Tonle Sap Lake region.
Four previous treaties of friendship and cooperation between the two countries (1979, 1982, 1983, 1985), and a 2005 supplemental treaty resulted in territorial loss to Vietnam both on land and at sea. The most glaring recent loss was Koh Tral, an island larger than Singapore located directly opposite the Cambodian coastal town of Sihanoukville known as Phu Quoc in Vietnam. The CNRP has said it still considers the island Cambodian territory because its handover came while the country was under Vietnamese occupation.
In 2010, Hun Sen responded to Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung's concern over ongoing, politicized border disputes by having his controlled courts sentence opposition leader Sam Rainsy to 10 years in prison for uprooting a few contested wooden border posts in Svay Rieng province. Meanwhile, Hun Sen and his CPP party have relied every election cycle on at least three million Vietnamese immigrants who unfailingly vote for the CPP to guarantee victory.
In July 28 elections, however, the Hun Sen-led CPP failed to win its usual landslide. Politically conscious and emboldened voters challenged through exposes over social media the CPP's use of illegal voters, vote-buying and voter intimidation to tilt the result in its favor. The CPP nonetheless rigged the result, officially winning 68 seats to the opposition's 55. Sam Rainsy has claimed his CNRP was robbed of a slim parliamentary majority and in protest has ordered his party members to boycott parliament and staged popular street demonstrations.
In the capital of Phnom Penh, more and more Vietnamese immigrants rent or own new residential buildings, including new luxury apartments and condominiums, with the financial help of Vietnamese government subsidized bank loans. With those state subsidies, part of Hanoi's policy to maintain grassroots control of the local economy, their community and businesses are growing briskly.
Tellingly, Hen Sen and his CPP party seldom use the word "Khmer" in their official addresses. Instead, they use "prajia jun Kampuchea", which means "the people of Kampuchea". Additionally Khmer citizens risk being penalized for referring to their eastern neighbor as "yuon", which merely means "Vietnamese" in the local language; the word "yuon" carries no negative racial overtone towards ethnic Vietnamese. For political correctness, Khmers have been officially encouraged to follow the pro-Hanoi line in referring to Vietnamese as "junjiat Vietnam", which in the Khmer language literally means "Vietnam ethnic or tribe."
During the People's Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989) and the State of Cambodia (1989-1992) regimes, the majority Khmer used to refer to ethnic Vietnamese as "bang pa-aun Vietnam," which literally means "elder-younger (siblings) Vietnam." There are other words considered to be pejorative, offending, or racial slurs for ethnic Vietnamese, but "yuon" is not one of them. Yuon became a hypersensitive word only after 1979. In 1993, Westerners played into Vietnam's hands by regarding the term without foundation as a racial slur.
When the CNRP claims that Khmer citizens have been systematically victimized while Vietnamese have been protected, some Cambodian government officials and Western donors have raised concerns about the future security of Vietnamese immigrants. When the opposition called for a nationwide mass protest against election irregularities and fraud, many feared pro-CNRP demonstrators may exploit the situation to target ethnic Vietnamese for revenge.
In apparent response, on August 15 Vietnamese troop convoys were reportedly ferried across the Bassac River near Cambodian territory and Vietnam's naval gunboats traveled up the Mekong River toward Phnom Penh in a show of force. Meanwhile, Khmer protesters, most of them disenfranchised and dispossessed members of the impoverished population, faced off with heavily armed security forces backed with high-caliber guns, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Many pro-CNRP protestors and even foreign journalists have been violently assaulted by CPP forces in recent weeks.
As grass roots people protest against the rigged election, many Western commentators have focused narrowly on the impact of the political impasse and rising political instability on economic growth rather than the CPP's illegitimate claim to power. In the final analysis, the opposition CNRP will likely eventually join the CPP-led government because no country in the free world is willing to support its democratic claim to legitimacy in the same way that Vietnam backs Hun Sen and his CPP. The CNRP, meanwhile, risks losing the support of the millions of Cambodians who voted for political change and genuine sovereignty if it joins the CPP-led government.
What is happening now in Cambodia warrants international monitoring since the political impasse is not solely a Khmer versus Khmer issue. To achieve lasting peace and stability, the signatory states to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement should, as stipulated in Article 5, "undertake to consult immediately with a view to adopting all appropriate steps to ensure respect for these commitments". The international community promised peace, independence, sovereignty and democracy for Cambodia in that agreement. Vietnam's ongoing interventions in Cambodian politics is inconsistent with that vision and in violation of its core principles.
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Hassan A Kasem has lived in the United States for 33 years. He previously worked for Radio Free Asia for 14 years in Washington DC and is now the US representative for Khmer M'Chas Srok (KMS), a non-profit, non-partisan NGO advocating the legitimate rights of the Khmer people and preserving the 1991 Paris Peace Accords on Cambodia. Hassan served in the Cambodian air force as a helicopter pilot toward the end of the war. He survived a Khmer Rouge detention camp and challenged the Vietnamese occupation before leaving Cambodia in 1979.