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Cambodia - Vietnam Relations

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) have long had a “comprehensive relationship” in which they strongly support each other and defend their respective roles from any political challenges. Hun Sen has mostly ignored the opposition’s accusations that he is a stooge of Hanoi while never hiding his good relations with Vietnam. These go back to 1977 when he and other Khmer Rouge defectors crossed into Vietnam. They were welcomed and trained to form a new Cambodian government that was installed by Vietnam after it ousted the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979.

CPP-CPV common interests do not add up to Vietnamese domination of Cambodia, as is shown, inter alia, by Cambodia’s refusal to toe Vietnam’s line on the South China Sea. Many Cambodians are wary of Vietnam’s influence over their country’s affairs. Towards the end of the Cold War, Vietnam's relationships with Cambodia did not differ substantially from their historic patterns. Contemporary Vietnamese attitudes reflected the conviction of cultural and political superiority that had prevailed during the nineteenth century when weaker monarchs in Cambodia had paid tribute to the Vietnamese court in a system modeled on Vietnam's own relationship to China. In the 1980s, Cambodia had once more become Vietnam's client state. Cambodia, under a ruthless, but anti-Vietnamese dictatorship of its own, resisted being drawn into the Vietnamese orbit. Tension between the two states escalated into open warfare and, in 1978, Hanoi launched an invasion that toppled the Pol Pot regime in Phnom Penh.

The Khmer, unlike the Lao, are an aggressive and independent-minded people who dislike the Vietnamese more than they fear them. Enmity has existed between the Khmer and the Vietnamese for centuries, but this antagonism did not hinder the growth of a sizable Vietnamese community scattered throughout southeastern and central Cambodia. According to an American scholar on Southeast Asia, Donald J. Steinberg, an estimated 291,596 Vietnamese, constituting more than 7 percent at the total population, resided in Cambodia in 1950. They were concentrated in Phnom Penh, end in Kandal, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham provinces.

The Khmer have shown more antipathy toward the Vietnamese than toward the Chinese or toward their other neighbors, the Thai. Several factors explain this attitude. The expansion of Vietnamese power resulted historically in the loss of Khmer territory. The Khmer, in contrast, have lost no territory to the Chinese and little to the Thai. No close cultural or religious ties exist between Cambodia and Vietnam. The Vietnamese fall within the Chinese culture sphere, rather than within the Indian, where the Thai and the Khmer belong. The Vietnamese differ from the Khmer in mode of dress, in kinship organization, and in many other ways -- for example the Vietnamese are Mahayana Buddhists.

Cambodia's relations with Vietnam have been affected by longstanding and deep-seated ethnic and cultural differtll1J:es and a history of competition for the lands of the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese are of Sino-Malay origin and are indebted to China for their ancient culture, whereas the Cambodians are Mon-Khmer and have a cultural tradition heavily influenced by India and Theravada Buddhism. The two peoples fought for control of the Mekong Delta from the fifteenth century until the late nineteenth century, when the French assumed control of the area.

Severance of diplomatic relations with South Vietnam in 1963 resulted from several causes. The Prince accused the South Vietnamese Government of mistreating the more than 200,000 ethnic Khmer who resided in southern South Vietnam. Prince Sihanouk asserted that there had been border penetrations by South Vietnamese military units, and he alleged that South Vietnamese Embassy personnel in Phnom Penh were providing financial assistance to antigovernment groups.

The Prince constantly reiterated his belief in his "policy of the future," which assumed the continued dotllinance of Communist China in Southeast Asian affairs and a Vietnam under eventual Communist control. He publicly supported the Communist National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnarn and opposed United States military support of South Vietnam.

In 1967 Cambodia formally granted de jure recognition to North Vietnam, and the two countries exchanged ambassadors. In the mid-1960's relations with Communist North Vietnam had been characterized more by friendly gestures than by substantive acts. North Vietnam repeatedly expressed peaceful intentions toward Cambodia; formal greetings were sent on special occasions; and sports teams were exchanged.

The communist victory in Vietnam in 1975 was accompanied by similar communist successes in Laos and Cambodia. The impression of the noncommunist world at the time was that the three Indochinese communist parties, having seized control in their respective countries, would logically work together, through the fraternal bond of a single ideology, to achieve common objectives. What appeared to be a surprising deterioration in relations, however, was actually the resurfacing of historical conflict that ideological commonality could not override. The victories of the Vietnamese communists and the Cambodian communist Khmer Rouge in 1975 did not bring peace. Relations between the two parties had been strained since the close of the First Indochina War.

The Geneva Agreements had failed to secure for the Khmer communists, as part of the first Cambodian national liberation organization, the United Issarak Front, a legitimate place in Cambodian politics. Some Khmer Communist and Issarak leaders subsequently went to Hanoi, but among those who stayed behind, Pol Pot and his faction, who later gained control of the Khmer (Kampuchean) Communist party, blamed Vietnam for having betrayed this party at Geneva. Pol Pot never lost his antipathy for Vietnam. Under his leadership, the Khmer Rouge adhered for years to a radical, chauvinistic, and bitterly anti-Vietnamese political line. Skirmishes broke out on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border almost immediately following the communist victories in Saigon and Phnom Penh, and in less than four years Vietnam was again at war, this time with Cambodia.

Instead of fighting directly with one another, China and Vietnam opted to use Cambodia as its ideological battleground. China aligned itself with Democratic Kampuchea, led by the Khmer Rouge, while Vietnam remained this regime‘s most vocal critic and enemy. When tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam broke into the open, the reason was ostensibly Cambodian demands that Hanoi return territory conquered by the Vietnamese centuries earlier. Vietnam's offers to negotiate the territorial issue were rejected, however, because of more urgent Khmer concerns that Hanoi intended to dominate Cambodia by forming an Indochina Federation or "special relationship." In any event, Vietnamese interest in resolving the situation peacefully clearly came to an end once the decisison was made to invade Cambodia.

Vietnam offensive forces crossing the Cambodia border in December 1978 the took less than a month, to occupy Phnom Penh amd most of the country. On January 7, 1979 Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers entered Phnom Penh, leading to the eventual "fall" of the four-year, brutal Khmer Rouge regime. China launched an attack and invaded North Vietnam. January 7 marked the beginning of a decade-long Vietnamese occupation. The Vietnamese forces that invaded Cambodia were, at first, welcomed as liberators who had freed the country from the bloody Pol Pot tyranny. Yet as it became clear that Hanoi had no intention of allowing the Cambodians to run their own affairs, but instead installed a client regime and began running the country in a neo-colonial manner, popular attitudes shifted. Discontent over political oppression, forced labor, and economic misery, combined with a strong anti-Vietnamese nationalist sentiment, created a resentment that increasingly found expression in a willingness to resist by force of arms. As Hanoi began to pursue policies perceived as aiming at the Vietnamization of the Khmer people, anti-Vietnamese feelings became the common denominator of resistance efforts - a fact that helps explain the continued viability of the discredited Khmer Rouge.

The invasion and the subsequent establishment of a puppet regime in Phnom Penh were costly to Hanoi, further isolating it from the international community. Vietnam's relations with a number of countries and with the United Nations (UN) deteriorated. The UN General Assembly refused to recognize the Vietnamese-supported government in Phnom Penh and demanded a total Vietnamese withdrawal followed by internationally supervised free elections. The ASEAN nations were unified in opposing Vietnam's action. Urged by Thailand's example, they provided support for the anti-Phnom Penh resistance. In February 1979, China was moved to retaliate against Vietnam across their mutual border.

The ensuing conflict in Cambodia pitted Vietnamese troops, assisted by forces of the new Phnom Penh government--the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK)--against a coalition of communist and noncommunist resistance elements. Of these elements, the government displaced from Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese, Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge (which had established the government known as Democratic Kampuchea in Cambodia in 1975), was the strongest and most effective military force, mainly because of support from the Chinese. The extremism and brutality of the Khmer Rouge's brief reign in Phnom Penh, where it may have been responsible for as many as 2 million deaths, made it infamous. ASEAN's concern that the reputation of the Khmer Rouge would lessen the international appeal of the anti-Vietnamese cause led it to press the Khmer Rouge and noncommunist resistance elements into forming a coalition that would appear to diminish the Khmer Rouge's political role.

Vietnam's occupation army of an estimated 180,000 troops was posted throughout the country from 1979 to September 1989. The Heng Samrin regime's 30,000 troops were plagued by poor morale and widespread desertion. Resistance to Vietnam's occupation was extensive. A remainder of the Khmer Rouge's military forces eluded Vietnamese troops and established themselves in remote regions. A non-communist resistance movement consisting of groups that had been fighting the Khmer Rouge after 1975--including Lon Nol-era soldiers--coalesced in 1979-80 to form the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF), which pledged loyalty to former Prime Minister Son Sann, and Moulinaka (Movement pour la Liberation Nationale de Kampuchea), loyal to Prince Sihanouk. In 1979, Son Sann formed the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) to lead a political struggle for Cambodia's independence. Prince Sihanouk formed his own organization, National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), and its military arm, the Armee Nationale Sihanoukienne (ANS) in 1981.

The tripartite Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed on June 22, 1982. In addition to the Khmer Rouge, it comprised a noncommunist resistance force called the Kampuchean People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF)--under the leadership of a former official of Prince Norodom Sihanouk's government, Son Sann--and Sihanouk's own noncommunist force (the Armee Nationale Sihanoukiste-- ANS). The Cambodian government in exile needed the added legitimacy that noncommunist factions and the prestige of Sihanouk's name could contribute. The Chinese were reluctant to withdraw their support from the Khmer Rouge, which they viewed as the only effective anti-Vietnamese fighting force among the three coalition members. They were persuaded, however, to support the coalition and eventually began supplying arms to Son Sann and Sihanouk as well as Pol Pot.

Despite an extensive record of internal squabbling, the coalition government provided the international community with an acceptable alternative to the Vietnamese-supported Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh. From 1982 to 1987, the coalition survived annual Vietnamese dry-season campaigns against its base camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, and, by changing its tactics in 1986 to emphasize long-term operations deep in the Cambodian interior, increased its military effectiveness. The coalition's military operations prevented the Vietnamese from securing all of Cambodia and helped create a stalemate.

Within Cambodia, Vietnam had only limited success in establishing its client Heng Samrin regime, which was dependent on Vietnamese advisers at all levels. Security in some rural areas was tenuous, and major transportation routes were subject to interdiction by resistance forces. The presence of Vietnamese throughout the country and their intrusion into nearly all aspects of Cambodian life alienated much of the populace. The settlement of Vietnamese nationals, both former residents and new immigrants, further exacerbated anti-Vietnamese sentiment. Reports of the numbers involved vary widely, with some estimates as high as 1 million.

By the late 1980s the situation remained deadlocked. Despite the costs, Vietnam's negotiating position remained inflexible. Hanoi apparently perceived itself to have gained enormously in terms of national security. The "special relationship" it had futilely sought with Pol Pot was effected almost immediately with the new Phnom Penh government when, in February 1979, a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed. In 1982 and 1983 a substantial number of Vietnamese reportedly settled in Cambodia, although Vietnam did not seem to be making a concerted effort to colonize the country. Instead, Hanoi appeared to be striving to build an indigenous regime that would be responsive to general Vietnamese direction and become part of an Indochinese community under Vietnamese hegemony.

Cambodia remained a state governed precariously by a regime installed by Hanoi, its activities constrained by the presence of a substantial Vietnamese occupation force and a tenacious insurgency in the countryside. Repeated Vietnamese assurances that Hanoi would withdraw its troops from the beleaguered country by 1990 were received with skepticism by some observers.

By the end of the 1980s, Khmer nationalism began to reassert itself against the traditional Vietnamese enemy. In 1986, Hanoi claimed to have begun withdrawing part of its occupation forces. At the same time, Vietnam continued efforts to strengthen its client regime, the PRK, and its military arm, the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Armed Forces (KPRAF). These withdrawals continued over the next 2 years, and the last Vietnamese troops left Cambodia in September 1989.

From July 30 to August 30, 1989, representatives of 18 countries, the four Cambodian parties, and the UN Secretary General met in Paris in an effort to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. They hoped to achieve those objectives seen as crucial to the future of post-occupation Cambodia--a verified withdrawal of the remaining Vietnamese occupation troops, the prevention of the return to power of the Khmer Rouge, and genuine self-determination for the Cambodian people. A comprehensive settlement was agreed upon on August 28, 1990.

Only with the October 23, 1991 signing of the Paris Peace Accords did Cambodia truly turn the page on the tumultuous chapter in its history. Cambodia commemorated the signing of the Paris Peace Accords as a national holiday up to 2005, when Prime Minister Hun Sen declared it would no longer be observed as a national holiday.

Vietnam, which lies to the east of Cambodia, shares common land and sea borders. The population of Vietnam is seven to eight times more than Cambodia's and the country maintains a large defense force. The defense force inventory includes large quantities of weapons and equipment. Although border disputes and illegal immigrants are of concern to Cambodia, there is no evidence to support military tension occurring between the two countries in the foreseeable future. Cambodia is drawn to this conclusion because the Cold War is over, Vietnam is a member of ASEAN and the priority for Vietnam now is to develop its own market economy.

Relations between Cambodia and Vietnam are generally good apart from uncertainty over some border demarcations and overlapping maritime economic areas that need to be resolved through negotiation. A Border Committee, whose task is similar to that established between Cambodia and Thailand, has been established by the two countries. Recently, the National Commission on Border Issues of the two countries held talks in an attempt to seek a formula for solving existing border problems. The two sides agreed on an approach that should put an end to their border problems as soon as possible.

By 2012 Cambodia and Vietnam were using information from French colonial era maps, the Cambodian constitution, and Cambodian King Norodom’s dealings with Vietnam in 1873 to define their borders. Norodom ruled as king from 1860 to 1904. Var Kimhong said that as part of the deal, Vietnam had agreed to allow Cambodia to reincorporate Along Chhrey and Thlok Trach villages as part of Kompong Cham province’s Ponhea Leu district—the original home of Cambodian National Assembly President Heng Samrin. In return, Vietnam will be permitted to claim part of Cambodia.

Opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) spokesman Yim Sovann said his group would never accept any deal between Cambodia and Vietnam regarding the demarcation of the shared border. “The opposition party opposes any demarcation that affects Cambodian territory,” he said. The SRP said it would also refuse to recognize a recent move by the national assembly, or Cambodian parliament, to ratify an additional treaty concerning Cambodian and Vietnamese border pacts. SRP leader Sam Rainsy currently lives in exile in France and is facing a two-year jail sentence for uprooting markers at the border with Vietnam in 2009, if he returns. Sam Rainsy has repeatedly accused Hun Sen of being a traitor and a Vietnamese puppet.” Sam Rainsy claims the country holds Cambodian territory with the blessing of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

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