Tim LaRocco

“Yuon is the name given by Kampuchea's people to the Vietnamese since the epoch of Angkor and it means 'savage,’” wrote Saloth Sar, otherwise known as Pol Pot, in his infamous Black Paper in 1978. The leader of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge presided over a genocidal rampage which killed an estimated 1.5 million people in Cambodia—20 percent of the population at that time--from 1975-1979. The mass killing targeted not just Cambodians, but Muslim Cham, Chinese, and Vietnamese as well.

The carnage came to a halt on January 7th, 1979, when Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia and, by April of that year, had sent the Khmer Rouge running to the opposite border with Thailand. January 7th is celebrated today in Cambodia as “Victory Over Genocide Day,” a public holiday.

“The major events that took place…[in Cambodia]...were actively initiated and organised by the communist Vietnamese in order to control Cambodia and to mislead the Cambodian people.”

One might be excused for presuming this is another quote from Pol Pot, but in fact, it can be attributed to Sam Rainsy, the xenophobic leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). He wrote it on his Facebook page on Victory Over Genocide Day this year, accompanied by the political cartoon shown above and which currently has more than 45,000 “likes.”

“7 January 1979 is a military and political show organised by the Vietnamese,” Rainsy wrote. “They say they came to liberate us from the Khmer Rouge. But if there were no communist Vietnamese in the first place there would be no Khmer Rouge either.”

To understand such an historical half-truth is to understand modern Cambodian politics.

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Several years ago, I wrote about Sam Rainsy for Warscapes, specifically looking at his inflammatory rhetoric regarding Vietnamese influence in Cambodia. He has frequently caused international incidents between the two countries by encouraging supporters to uproot border markers and, in general, to cause problems in an effort to paint the Vietnamese in a bad light at politically advantageous times.

But Rainsy is not the only one who expresses such caustic derision at the “yuon.” CNRP Vice President, and former National Assembly VP Kem Sohka, has in the past also hypothesized some interesting conspiracy theories pertaining to the genocide. Most notably, Sohka claimed that the S-21 Tuol Sleng detention center--a former Phnom Penh school turned into a horror house by the Khmer Rouge where unspeakable savagery was carried out by torturers--as a fiction created by Vietnamese agents. 

It is true that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) played a role in the creation of the Khmer Rouge. The NVA provided original support for leading Khmer Rouge cadres and helped to establish the small band of guerillas as a movement. 

But massive American bombardment ordered by President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger also gave impetus for Khmer villagers to turn towards Pol Pot after bearing witness to the devastation wrought by the American policy of “anything that flies on everything that moves.” Craters left by B-52 bombers can be seen today as far away as Battambang province in Cambodia’s northwest. Between 1965-1973, and starting with the Lyndon Johnson administration, the United States indiscriminately dropped more than 2.7 million tonnes of bombs on more than 113,000 locations throughout Cambodia according to documents declassified in the late 1990s. To put that into perspective, the Allied powers dropped 3.4 million tonnes of bombs for the entire duration of WWII.

However, the Khmer Rouge received the bulk of its support from Red China, an historical fact which Sam Rainsy has never mentioned. With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the Cultural Revolution at its apex, China was the only country to have a presence in what was then known as Democratic Kampuchea. As many as 5,000 Chinese technicians and engineers were working in the country building airstrips and other such projects in an effort to enable long-range bombing raids into Vietnam.

The postulations of Rainsy and Sokha are usually met with incredulous lassitude by Cambodia’s expat community and English language press. But to Cambodians, the vast majority of which were never properly educated due to a national infrastructure system left in tatters after the Khmer Rouge, the veracity of such dubious contentions is not at issue. Cambodians accept such tall tales due to an endemic animosity directed at Vietnam and Cambodia’s Vietnamese community.

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Phnom Penh, once called “the pearl of the French Empire” in Indochina, is today the capital of a Third World quasi-dictatorship where corruption is ubiquitous in all sectors of society. The leader of this fiefdom is Prime Minister Hun Sen, the longest serving head of state in Asia according to his Facebook page. It is perhaps telling that the Premier considers this a badge of honor, rather than an indictment of the nation’s democratic record.

Hun Sen was himself a former Khmer Rouge military officer who lost an eye fighting to take the capital city. He eventually defected to Vietnam and was part of the invading forces in 1979. Some opposition supporters refer to the ayng yuon, or Vietnamese puppet, when speaking of him. He plays the role of scapegoat in a bizarre victimization narrative which, instead of citing the past genocide or poverty for the litany of problems facing the country, places blame squarely on the shoulders of the Vietnamese.

The Prime Minister won’t raise the nation’s minimum wage any higher? That’s because he measures it against Vietnam’s regulations and won’t let Cambodia’s rate overtake that of his masters. Illegal logging of precious rosewood trees? Sold over the border for profit in Vietnam as Cambodia suffers one of the worst deforestation rates in the developing world. Land concessions result in impoverished villagers losing their homes? The Vietnamese military were granted huge concessions from the Agricultural Ministry. 

But in fact, most of the textile sweatshops in the outskirts of the capital and the surrounding provinces, which pay most workers a pitiful minimum wage of $140/month, are Chinese-owned. Moreover, the rate was just recently raised despite studies which show that Vietnam’s garment sector is more productive than Cambodia’s. Regarding the issue of illegal logging, the majority of rosewood is actually bought by China in its insatiable appetite for ornate furniture.

And land concessions are apportioned primarily to Cambodian corporations, but also to companies from a variety of different national groups according to this map by human rights organizations, LICADHO.

One might argue that China, not Vietnam, is the biggest threat to Cambodian sovereignty. In 2012, as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual conference, Hun Sen had the opportunity to set the organization’s agenda for the meeting to be held in Phnom Penh. The most pressing issue for the region that year--and every year since—centered on the row in the South China Sea between China and several Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam. A few days before the conference was to be held, Chinese leader Hu Jintao flew in to meet with Hun Sen. With thousands of school children directed to line the city’s main arteries holding miniature Chinese flags, the two leaders stopped for pictures in front of several landmarks and could be observed fawning over each other with determined levity. It was announced that the South China Sea dispute would be omitted from the conference's agenda in the days that followed, to the bewilderment of the other ASEAN countries.  A generous financial aid package was later awarded to Cambodia from the PRC.

But criticism of China amongst Cambodians is also missing from the agenda. What makes the situation even more volatile is that Vietnam supplies Cambodia with most of its energy needs. This reality was driven home when the entire country went off the power grid during the last day of Cambodia’s Water Festival holiday at the end of November following a electrical problem in Vietnam. This dependence, far from encouraging a more amicable discourse, only serves to enrage Sam Rainsy supporters even more.

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Rainsy has recently been found responsible, by a ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)-controlled judicial system, of baseless accusations directed at ruling apparatchiks dating back several years. An arrest warrant was issued and, despite first saying he would return to the country to achieve some degree of martyrdom, Mr. Rainsy has now deemed life in Parisian exile more agreeable, which some might find ironic considering that many Khmer Rouge leaders studied and planned together in France. 

Incidentally, his banishment will probably allow for a period of bucolic calm as the ruling CPP seeks to consolidate its loosening grip on power. Whether Cambodia’s figurehead King Sihamoni will pardon Rainsy as he did in 2013, allowing him to contest the next national election in 2018, remains to be seen. 

But despite everything we hear in diplomatic halls about the so-called “Asian Way” and its unshakable urbanity, hatred here runs deep--Cambodians like to pontificate about a sliver of land known as Kampuchea Krom which was taken by Vietnam centuries ago as if it were a personal slight to them today.  Sam Rainsy has made a political career out of revving up the masses and searching for a race war, so for the 14,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, the possibility for another round of racially-inspired violence is always very real.

Tim LaRocco is a Southeast Asia-based journalist who also teaches history and economics at a leading school in Cambodia. Follow him on Twitter at @TheRealMrTim