Half a century ago, before the coup, before the civil war, before the genocide and the famine and the occupation, Prince Norodom Sihanouk stood up from the solemn Pchum Ben celebrations he was presiding over and scurried across the room to a baffled British journalist filming the feast of the ancestors. The reporter, John Morgan, had been following the playboy prince across the Kingdom, marvelling at the fragile peace maintained by the former sovereign at the edges of the catastrophic Vietnam War that was eating away at its borders.
In one of his many candid interviews with the journalist, Sihanouk turned his gaze to that same border, where fighting between the US and the North Vietnamese had spilled over onto Cambodia’s sovereign territory. Fresh on his charm offensive with the Americans, the prince knew exactly who to blame.
“Under the pretext that there is a war necessity, they come into Cambodia – already they occupy some parts of our lands,” he said. “So far as the Vietnamese are concerned, they have a very big population – and there is a lack of land. They don’t have enough land for everybody, and we, we have more land than we need. The Vietnamese always have the temptation to come into Cambodia and occupy our lands.”
These fears have been nothing new to Cambodia. Its empire humiliated and its greatest cities lost to the encroaching Thai and Vietnamese forces, the Kingdom had for decades lived on only under the thumb of the French colonialists, who wasted little time in appointing Vietnamese bureaucrats to plum positions of authority over the resentful locals.
Even less forgivable was the imperial power’s decision to parcel off Cambodia’s traditional lands in the Kampuchea Krom region along the Mekong Delta and the island of Koh Tral – now known by its Vietnamese name Phu Quoc – to the hated Vietnamese. It was this slight that would later prompt Pol Pot to launch bloody assaults across the border in hopes of reclaiming Cambodia’s lost lands – a decision that would ultimately not prevent Vietnamese domination over the small country, but ensure it.
Faced with these threats, it was only understandable that the prince would seek allies in the face of imminent invasion.
“In this jungle which is the real world,” he asked, “should we, simple deer, interest ourselves in a dinosaur like China when we are more directly menaced, and have been for centuries, by the wolf and the tiger, who are Vietnam and Thailand?”
But Ear Sophal, a US-based Cambodian political analyst and the author of The Hungry Dragon: How China’s Resource Quest is Reshaping the World, said that times had changed since the once and future king had looked to China to shield Cambodia from the potential predations of its neighbours.
“Foreign policy is shaped by the problems of the present. Though, it will always reflect the past. And, in the post-colonial world, history casts a long shadow”DC-CAM director Youk Chhang
“Decades ago, Sihanouk allegedly said that Cambodia needed to be wary of countries that shared a border with Cambodia,” he said. “That mostly meant Vietnam and Thailand – Laos is just not like the other two. This meant that countries that didn’t share a border with Cambodia – countries like China – could enjoy a deeper relationship with Cambodia. Back in those days, it was true – more or less.”
Cambodian political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that enduring feelings of mistrust towards the neighbouring Vietnam were understandable for a nation that had spent more than a decade under foreign occupation.
“A knowledgeable person would see the Cambodian people’s feelings towards the Vietnamese as not so different from those of the Koreans and the Chinese, the Irish and the Greeks towards their respective former conquerors, the Japanese, the English and the Turks,” he said.
Now, though, more and more Cambodians are finding a different breed of red under their beds. We can perhaps skip past the well-worn cliches of China’s growing influence in the Kingdom; the drug-ridden backpacker paradise of Sihanoukville swallowed by Chinese development, a fifth of the coastline leased to Chinese interests, rumours in the US press of a secret deal allowing Chinese access to Cambodian naval bases along the shore.
What matters is that where once the Cambodian government – installed, funded, and guided since the fall of the Khmer Rouge by its supporters in Hanoi until the end of the Cold War – stood accused of serving the interests of one master across its borders, it has now been condemned for seeking to serve two.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said that the Kingdom had long found itself caught between great powers competing for influence across the region.
“It is new for Cambodia’s contemporary history in politics, yet it is nothing new to a Cambodian proverb for centuries, saying: if you go down to the river, you will face the crocodile – the Vietnamese; if you go up to the jungle, you will face the tiger – the Chinese,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. “Cambodia has always been in between. But this time, both have surfaced as friends of Cambodia. Time will tell if Cambodia foreign policy is a successful one and that will benefit the people of Cambodia as a whole.”
For a government first installed by occupying Vietnamese forces after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, this increasingly snug alliance with the neighbouring countries’ oldest enemy is a delicate one indeed.
This balancing act was on full display during a visit over the weekend by Prime Minister Hun Sen to meet with his counterparts in Vietnam to discuss the long-running border disputes that continue to raise hackles between Phnom Penh and Hanoi. He left the Vietnamese capital having ratified 84% of the 1,270km long border between the two countries, leaving just 16% still largely undemarcated. A similar agreement was reached with Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith last month.
Sophal said that Hun Sen’s eagerness to settle the disputed borders stemmed in part from Vietnam’s growing concern over reports that the Chinese military will have access to Ream naval base on the Gulf of Thailand, alongside allegations that the nearby Dara Sakor resort, a $3.8 billion investment project entirely funded and built by the Chinese Union Development Group, will provide cover for an airfield capable of extending China’s military might across mainland Southeast Asia. Both allegations have been fiercely denied by both the Cambodian and Chinese governments.
“The joint-statement means that Cambodia is fully aware of the eyes of Hanoi on its shoulders as it gets ever closer to Beijing,” Sophal said. “The way Cambodia gets around all this is to issue Cambodian passports to Chinese soldiers, deputising them into Cambodians and making their base a ‘Cambodian’ base… but that is only in name. What the Vietnamese care about is not being attacked, period. If they get attacked by someone inside Cambodia, then Cambodia reprises its role in what had been the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the Xi Jinping Trail.”
Sophal maintained that if there was truth to these reports, it would mark a new chapter in Cambodia’s relationship with regional powers – and a return to the power struggles that first plunged the Kingdom into chaos.
“With commercial and charter planes, you can bring hundreds of thousands, even millions of people into Cambodia from a non-bordering country,” he said. “And with a base at Ream, an airport and deepwater port in Koh Kong, you might as well have a piece of China inside Cambodia. Heck, Cambodians will need permission from China when entering the Chinese portion of Ream! Issuing passports to Chinese soldiers? That’s like 21st century colonialism!”
More concerning than some speculative eruption of World War III, though, is the impact that these concerns could have not just on the Cambodian-Vietnamese alliance, but the increasingly tenuous alliance between the Cambodian government and the people it is meant to serve. Fears that Cambodia’s government is selling out the nation’s sovereignty have been a mainstay of opposition rhetoric against the party – and the now-dissolved CNRP has rarely flinched away from ramping up nationalist fervour into full-blown racial panic.
Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has long railed against what he describes as Vietnam’s “puppet regime” in the Kingdom, even taking it upon himself to destroy border markers he believed marked the extension of Vietnamese dominion into Cambodia soil.
According to Youk, accusations that the interests of the Cambodian people are being sold short have always engendered pushback from the public.
“The public knowledge today is much greater than one could imagine,” he said. “People know that Cambodia has a history of resistance through peaceful and violent means against social injustice. With this in mind, Cambodia should be able to find a balance by putting the two friends – since they are now a friend – in just one scale.”
But Sophal insisted that it was a mistake to imagine that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was united in its decision to balance Vietnamese support with backing from China.
“If anything, the opposition probably misses the days when Hun Sen and the CPP were allegedly puppets of the Vietnamese,” he said. “If they were, they’re no longer listening to their Vietnamese puppet masters and have acquired Chinese ones. And of course, the CPP isn’t monolithic – some are still loyal to Hanoi and alarmed by Beijing. Some feel vice versa. Some are in between, balancing.”
For Youk, Cambodia’s current tightrope act between the two powers shows that the wounds left by decades of colonial and neo-colonial struggles for dominion throughout the 20th century have never fully closed.
“Today should be a key lesson for Cambodia to improve its foreign policy by switching the problems to benefit its people,” he said. “Foreign policy is shaped by the problems of the present. Though, it will always reflect the past. And, in the post-colonial world, history casts a long shadow!”