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Vietnam and Cambodia: A Journey Through Their Shared History
These are the insights from Vietnamese residents in the Khmer Society of Cambodia.
This article was translated by The Vietnamese Magazine from the original article in Vietnamese written by Nguyen Thanh Minh and published by Luat Khoa Magazine on November 27, 2023.
Vietnam and Cambodia are neighboring countries with a long history of tension and numerous conflicts. In examining the dynamics between the two nations, several questions may arise, such as when the Vietnamese started arriving in Cambodia and their influence on Khmer society. Additionally, exploring the perspectives of Cambodian governments and their people throughout different periods may provide insight into their views regarding the Vietnamese community within their borders.
French anthropologist Didier Bertrand analyzes the presence of the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia through the history of the Vietnam–Cambodia relationship while also considering certain geopolitical, diplomatic, cultural, and social aspects.
The study titled “Les Vietnamiens au Cambodge: analyse des représentations et des conditions d'une intégration,” (“The Vietnamese in Cambodia: Analysis of representations and conditions of integration”) published in the ASÉANIE journal in 1998, is Didier Bertrand's contribution to this discussion.  His research, published during Cambodia's preparations to join ASEAN, remains highly relevant.
Vietnamese immigrants have been present in Cambodia for a long time, dating back to when the territories of both nations were not as clearly defined as they are today. Vietnamese migration to present-day Cambodia occurred in various stages and for various reasons. They constitute a minority group subject to the scrutiny and discrimination of the native population, primarily due to the complex geopolitical relations spanning from ancient times to the modern era.
According to Bertrand, these concerns are manifested in four dimensions: geopolitical (border conflicts), political (intelligence infiltration), economic (resource exploitation), and cultural (destroying Khmer culture, often through the avenue of prostitution).
The Feudal Era
After marrying Princess Ngoc Van of Annam, King Chey Chesda (1618 - 1628) of the Chenla kingdom allowed the Vietnamese people to settle in the Mekong Delta region for two centuries. Initially, the Vietnamese lived along the river, but they gradually established settlements in the modern-day territory of Cambodia.
Vietnamese farmers effectively dominated the Cochinchine region before the French took control of this land. Administrative structures for the new territories, including residence registration records, communes, and officials, were established alongside the occupation of specific areas. The dynamic and ambitious Vietnamese, keen on conquest, knew how to leverage the privileges bestowed upon them. Upon becoming the majority group in the area, they took ownership of the land they had diligently reclaimed by constructing irrigation systems, transforming plots of land into cemeteries to bury their ancestors, and the like.
The Colonial Era
The French colonial administration in this region only fueled the fire. French authorities actively encouraged Vietnamese migration to Cambodia to work as laborers on rubber plantations.
Moreover, many positions within the colonial administration in Cambodia were held by Vietnamese individuals.
Furthermore, the Vietnamese provided various services, from craftsmanship and mechanics to construction and carpentry. The French believed that the Vietnamese were beneficial for their colonial rule.
According to estimates, the Vietnamese population constituted approximately 5.8% of the total population in Cambodia in 1921, excluding those not officially recognized by the ruling government at the time.
The Post-Colonial Period
During this period, anti-Vietnamese sentiment heightened due to the repressive policies of the Republic of Vietnam towards Buddhism. On the other hand, King Norodom Sihanouk accepted the presence of the Viet Minh on Khmer territory.
In 1970, King Sihanouk was ousted, and the Khmer Republic was established, leading to an increase in protests against Vietnam. During that time, tens of thousands were killed, and around 250,000 Vietnamese individuals (including 28,000 with Cambodian citizenship) were expelled from Cambodia. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the republic, and many Vietnamese were executed.
In 1979, the Vietnamese army overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese government did not stop the wave of migration into Cambodia. Many civilians, alongside experts and military personnel, relocated there. During this period, many Cambodians believed that the Viet Minh and the Khmer Rouge were one, with some even viewing the Khmer Rouge as Viet Minh spies.
According to Didier Bertrand, the Vietnamese occupied and exploited many resources but had limited involvement in the country’s rebuilding process after the rule of Pol Pot. At the same time, many Cambodians were subjected to nationalist propaganda, fueling an increase in anti-Vietnamese sentiments.
Issues from the Cambodian Government
During the 17th century, the first wave of migrants from Vietnam to Cambodia mainly consisted of fishermen who primarily settled in the Tonlé Sap River region. These fishermen were predominantly followers of Buddhism and had minimal interactions with the native Khmer people. Regardless, at that time, they showed little interest in picking either country as their home country because the borders between Vietnam and Cambodia were not well-defined.
Successive generations of Vietnamese migrants were not fluent in Khmer, and even when they spoke the language, they always identified as Vietnamese. This group often returned to Vietnam and reinvested their profits in their home country. Their occupations were mainly manual labor, such as repair and construction work.
The Cambodian authorities often overlooked this significant difference, categorizing them all as Vietnamese immigrants. The presence of the Vietnamese in Khmer society has always been politicized. Opposition parties in Cambodia consistently depict the Vietnamese as invaders. Sam Rainsy, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, is renowned for his vehement anti-Vietnamese statements. Many Khmer people believe in a conspiracy that the Hanoi government sent Vietnamese immigrants to seize their territory.
Furthermore, Cambodians have not forgotten the disappearance of the Champa Kingdom from the world map due to the Vietnamese's southward expansion (Nam tiến). A once powerful kingdom with a superior civilization ultimately lost every inch of its land. Many Khmer fear that one day, Cambodia might suffer a similar fate.
Many Khmer people consider themselves victims, facing a perceived threat from their neighboring country, Vietnam, which had once invaded their land. At the same time, there are many Vietnamese individuals born in Cambodia who have never set foot in Vietnam, yet Cambodian society does not acknowledge them; they remain marginalized and oppressed in the place where they were born. Both the Khmer Krom in Vietnam and the Vietnamese born and raised in Cambodia are victims of political tensions and political propaganda from the authorities and the ruling class.
Vietnamese individuals in Cambodia contribute economically and could hold significant political roles despite facing cultural and societal limitations. The proper integration of a minority group has to come from the living environment that is shaped and managed by the policies of the ruling authorities. These minority groups need protection from their country of residence and international law.
1. Didier Bertrand. (1998). Les Vietnamiens au Cambodge : analyse des représentations et des conditions d’une intégration. Aséanie, 2(1), 27–46. https://doi.org/10.3406/asean.1998.1594