There was no hint of the long-running border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia at the Moc Bai-Bavet crossing, where friendly Vietnamese police officers were busily stamping foreign tourists’ passports. But relations between the two countries that share the Mekong delta have not always been peaceful. Three posters just before you reach the border guards’ post on the Vietnamese side show maps from the time of Emperor Minh Mang (1820-41). Their main purpose is to assert Vietnamese sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, claimed notably by China. But they also show the kingdom of Vietnam extending as far as Cambodia’s modern-day capital, Phnom Penh, and the shores of Lake Tonle Sap.
The Mekong delta stretches 300km, from Phnom Penh, where the river divides in two, to the South China Sea. It covers an area almost the size of the Netherlands and its hydraulic system, including Lake Tonle Sap (upstream of Phnom Penh) which floods annually, makes it one of the world’s most fertile zones. In the 18th century it became a melting pot of ethnolinguistic groups – Vietnamese, Khmer (the vast majority in present-day Cambodia, some 90%), Cham and Chinese – but from the early 19th century, the Vietnamese became increasingly dominant, conquering territory, building fortresses and clearing land.
Fear of this expansionism was a factor in the mid-19th century Cambodian king Ang Duong’s decision to accept France’s offer to protect his country from Vietnam and Siam (now Thailand). He sent troops to help the French take Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1859 and his successor, Norodom (1860-1904), officially recognised the French protectorate in 1863.
What we want is a stable and agreed border that will enable peace and cooperation between our countries. We agree on every other issue
Var Kim Hong
The French protectorate did, however, cause a few problems: notably, the French authorities encouraged Vietnamese (whom they considered more hard-working) to migrate to Cambodia, where they worked on rubber plantations or as junior civil servants. By the early 1950s, Vietnamese made up nearly a third of Phnom Penh’s population, and after Cambodia and Vietnam gained their independence (in 1953 and 1954), the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia and Khmer minority in South Vietnam (known as the Khmer Krom) became a major challenge for the new states as they tried to build national unity. The border inherited from the French colonial authorities simply divided the Mekong delta in two, taking no account of the region’s tangled human geography. Old resentments gradually turned to hate.
Vietnam adopted a strategy of assimilation. Under President Ngo Dinh Diem (1955-63) amid diplomatic and military tensions with Cambodia, Vietnam’s 500,000 Khmer Krom were forced to ‘Vietnamise’ their names. Meanwhile, until the late 1960s, more than half a million Vietnamese still lived in Cambodia. Diem tried to entice them to move to Vietnam with offers of land in border areas (as a way of limiting infiltration by North Vietnamese communists via Cambodia), but they remained attached to their river-based way of life along the Mekong and Tonle Sap.
‘Territory to be retaken’
Nevertheless, most fled the purges that followed Cambodian general Lon Nol’s March 1970 coup. At the height of the US Air Force bombing, the Vietnam-Cambodia border became an ethnic demarcation line for the first time. The rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) and Vietnam’s 1978-89 occupation of Cambodia (known as the third Indochina war), reinforced this division.
The Khmer Rouge saw the Mekong delta as territory to be retaken and made repeated incursions into Vietnam’s border areas, burning villages and killing hundreds, especially during 1977 and 1978. After Vietnamese troops captured Phnom Penh in 1979, border incidents became rarer, but did not cease altogether: according to journalist Michel Blanchard the last massacres took place in 1993, four years after the Vietnamese withdrew (1). Thirty years on, the only signs of the atrocities are rusty commemorative plaques in the villages. However, both governments are conscious of the need to come to terms with this painful legacy, even if it means exceeding their territorial authority.
Nguyen Thi Thu Ha, a Vietnamese born in Cambodia in 1967, lives in S’ang, south of Phnom Penh. Her parents fled to Vietnam in 1970 but returned in 1980, and she has lived in Cambodia ever since. Because she doesn’t have citizenship, she pays 250,000 Cambodian riel a year (around $60, equivalent to a third of the monthly minimum wage) for a residency card. ‘The Vietnamese embassy helps us pay the fee,’ she said.
The citizenship question
This was confirmed by people I met in other Vietnamese-majority villages along the Mekong and Tonle Sap, though a source close to the Vietnamese foreign ministry explained that ‘for political reasons, we don’t publicise it too much’: it’s important not to fuel anti-Vietnamese sentiment. But, effectively, Hanoi is protecting and exerting a discreet form of influence over these people. Cambodia’s 1996 nationality law excludes many Vietnamese nationals living on its territory, effectively making them stateless. To obtain citizenship, they must prove that their family has lived in Cambodia for several generations, which is difficult owing to the lack of administrative continuity and loss of records under the Khmer Rouge.
The situation of the 1.3 million Khmer in Vietnam is different: they have Vietnamese citizenship, yet still feel closer to Cambodia in their identity, culture and religion. Officially, they are one of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities, but international NGOs frequently report violations of their rights, especially religious. There have been major demonstrations, most recently in 2007, and the Vietnamese police still closely monitor the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), whose stated aims are self-determination and religious freedom. KKF activist Duong Khai, who uses social media to raise awareness among Vietnam’s Khmer of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was detained for two days in April 2021, according to UN human rights special rapporteurs who raised his case in Geneva that June. On his release the Vietnamese police retained copies of the Declaration (in Khmer) which they had seized. He has since reported being under constant surveillance.
Last July’s Miss Grand Cambodia beauty contest highlighted the ambiguous status of Vietnam’s Khmer Krom. Cambodians living abroad were eligible to compete, and the eventual first runner-up was a Khmer Krom, Soriyan Hang. However, when the contest organiser introduced her as being of mixed Vietnamese-Khmer origin, there were calls on social media for her to prove her ancestry.
Some in Phnom Penh defended Hang, citing the classic nationalist argument that it was the French who ‘gave the Mekong delta to the Vietnamese’ and that she was therefore perfectly entitled to take part. But Raoul-Marc Jennar, advisor to Cambodia’s foreign minister (2), points out that while it’s true that the Vietnamese ruthlessly consolidated their position in the delta under emperors Minh Mang (1820-41) and Thieu Tri (1841-47), ‘King Ang Duong had already given up trying to retake Kampuchea Krom by 1845, well before the French arrived.’ Jennar says that ‘when some Cambodians start talking about Vietnam, common sense goes out of the window.’
Mekong delta problems
Though the Mekong delta and relations with Vietnam are divisive issues in Cambodian politics, they are of less concern in Vietnam. Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen, who defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1977 and helped lead the resistance from Vietnam, is now seen as pro-Hanoi. His opponents, among them Cambodian National Rescue Party founder Sam Rainsy, currently in exile in France, are highly critical of his stance, partly out of nationalism and partly as an electoral tactic, even making use of anti-Vietnamese sentiment. On several occasions, Rainsy has had activists move markers on the Vietnam-Cambodia border. He also played an active part in border incidents between Khmer and Vietnamese smallholders in May and June 2015.
The official border, nearly 1,200km long, has been disputed ever since Vietnam and Cambodia gained independence, but talks launched in 2006 suggest a solution is in sight. The Vietnamese negotiating team is led by deputy foreign minister Nguyen Minh Vu while Var Kim Hong, senior minister in charge of the Cambodia-Vietnam border affairs committee, heads the Cambodian team. ‘From 1990s,’ he said, ‘we questioned the value of the 1985 treaty with Vietnam reaffirming the two countries’ intention of sticking to the border fixed by the French in 1954. We concluded that it did.’ But the opposition contested this, and Hun Sen decided it would be best to negotiate because of how the decision would be perceived domestically.
Not everyone was pleased. In 2005 former king Norodom Sihanouk published an open letter claiming that renegotiating the border would be ‘suicide’. But Var Kim Hong has stuck to Hun Sen’s line, set out in a five-hour speech to Cambodia’s national assembly in 2012. ‘What we want,’ Var Kim Hong said, ‘is a stable and agreed border that will enable peace and cooperation between our countries. We agree on every other issue,’ notably on a reduction of customs duties under the free trade agreement between members of ASEAN, which Vietnam joined in 1995 and Cambodia in 1999.
In 2019 the two sides reached an agreement on 84% of their shared border and submitted maps to the UN. Talks continued, and in May 2022 they agreed on 6% more. Fixing the rest of the border, Var Kim Hong explained, is made difficult by ambiguities in the 1954 French maps: ‘The French documents are a very useful reference; the points of contention relate to the gaps in those documents.
‘Moreover, French decisions often favoured Cochinchina [the colonial era name for the southern part of Vietnam], which was a colony, while Cambodia was only a protectorate. For example, where there was a river, instead of dividing it down the middle, which would be in line with international law, the French gave the near bank and the river itself to Vietnam, leaving Cambodia with only the far bank. But the Vietnamese have shown good faith and the talks are progressing.’ Nevertheless, negotiations on the remaining 10% are likely to be tough, since the areas concerned are remote and poorly mapped.
Var Kim Hong’s other objective is to ‘educate the local population so they recognise this border’. Achieving this will take at least as long as the diplomatic talks. Despite professions of goodwill, the political boundaries the two states are seeking to establish can never correspond perfectly to the Mekong delta’s complex human geography.
https://mondediplo.com/2023/06/08vietnam End to Mekong delta dispute?, by Louis Raymond (Le Monde diplomatique