Neighbours

Dutch people don’t like Germans. Ok, I immediately admit that is a gross exaggeration. Germany is our most important ally in Europe, it’s our largest trading partner and most tourists come from Germany. But still… a war and a lost World Cup soccer final are more important. Grumbling about Germans is part of Dutch folklore and probably part of it is caused by the Calimero-effect: we are small and they are big and that’s not fair. Fact is that the overall reputation of Germans among Dutch is not positive. Let’s say that the relationship is a complex one.

The relation between Cambodia and their large neighbour Vietnam is even more complex. At least part of it has to do with their common history. About 800 years age, most of current Vietnam was part of the Angkorian Empire, so Cambodian. Since then, the balance of power has shifted a lot and large parts of the Angkorian Empire became Vietnamese (or Thai). Although around the Thai border there are still some skirmishes once in a while about some areas and there is a part of Vietnam that the Cambodians consider as being part of Cambodia, so they call it Kampuchea Krom (lower Cambodia, as it is in the lower parts of the Mekong), overall the status quo has been accepted.

Modern history is a more difficult subject. The Vietnamese were the ones to stand up against the French colonisation in the 1940s and 50s, but didn’t get the independence they wanted. By doing that they paved the way to Cambodian independence, but the ensuing Vietnamese war led to bombardments and political instability in Cambodia, what ultimately laid the foundations for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. What makes matters really complex, is the role Vietnam played at the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. The end came with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge towards the Thai border. There is little discussion that the end of the Khmer Rouge was good for Cambodia and the Cambodians. It’s just that afterwards there was a slight problem. The Khmer Rouge killed pretty much all members of the former regime, including civil servants and they killed almost all educated people, so there was no alternative government. The Vietnamese army entered Cambodia accompanied by the new Cambodian government, mostly young Cambodians who had fled the Khmer Rouge and learned the basics of government in Vietnam. A young and inexperienced group of people. Rightly or wrongly, the Vietnamese thought that this group was not capable of ruling the country on their own. Until the final withdrawal of the Vietnamese army in 1989, Vietnam has supported the Cambodian government, or as most Cambodians say, de facto ruled the country. The current prime minister was minister of Economic Affairs in that first Cambodian government and has been prime minister since 1985. His critics maintain that even now it is mainly the Vietnamese government that rules Cambodia. The current government is certainly not an enemy of Vietnam, but the extent of the Vietnamese influence is unclear as the government doesn’t shy away from taking some measures that are unpopular with the Vietnamese as well.

The Cambodian government will finally implement the long existing labour regulations. Besides being a simple way to make western expats get a labour permit and gain some extra government income, it’s mainly a way to arrest and expel Vietnamese labourers. That’s what the implementation is about. It is a popular measure amongst average Cambodians. Many Cambodians see Vietnamese as (usually illegal) immigrants who are coming to steal their jobs. The fact that most Vietnamese working in Cambodia have jobs for which there are no skilled Cambodians available, doesn’t matter, neither does the fact that many Cambodians themselves work in Thailand, because “that’s different”. Why it’s different they can’t explain.

Both the ethnic Khmer in Vietnam (the Khmer Krom) and the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, are discriminated against. The ethnic Vietnamese are mostly fishermen and belong to the poorest groups in Cambodia. They are the inhabitants of the seemingly romantic “floating villages”, forced to live there because they were not allowed to buy land to build a house. Of course the excess fishing in Cambodian rivers and lakes is their fault, as they use dynamite and electric shocks to fish and that way kill all fish in that area. Cambodians don’t do that.

The other side of the relationship is that Cambodians like to use the knowledge and skills Vietnamese have. Study tours and exchange visits regularly visit Vietnam to learn from their expertise in agriculture, government policies or other affairs. Many Cambodians who can afford it, go to Vietnam for medical care, because it’s better there than in Cambodia. It’s easy to do that as the price of a bus ticket is about the same from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap as it is from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodians don’t need a visa.

A good neighbour is better than a brother far off, but it’s not always easy to be good neighbours.

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