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How the ‘Politics of Gratitude’ Inflames Cambodia-Vietnam Relations

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Some Vietnamese nationalists view Phnom Penh’s decision to press ahead with a controversial canal project as a sign of ingratitude.

On May 20, Vietnam’s Ambassador to Cambodia Nguyen Huu Tang was summoned by Cambodian Foreign Minister Sok Chenda Sophea, to discuss a rash of online criticisms of Hun Sen, the former prime minister and president of the Senate. This meeting followed Hun Sen’s earlier complaints about the “shocked” comments of Vietnamese TikTok users, who berated him for his resolve to move forward with the country’s controversial Funan Techo Canal project. At the cringeworthy meeting, Sok Chenda Sophea asked his Vietnamese counterpart to track down and punish the plotters behind the derogatory comments about Hun Sen.

This summons was used by Cambodia to convey a plain message: that compromise on online name-calling is not an option. “If the Vietnamese side decides to cooperate well with us,” Touch Sokhak, spokesperson of Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, said, “it will demonstrate the Vietnamese side also wants to find out who the perpetrators are, where they come from, and what their intentions and goals really were.” This seems to suggest that Phnom Penh will view any idleness on Hanoi’s part as either malicious or deliberate.

The diplomatic summons in response to as trivial an issue as offensive online comments was perplexing, but it could be read as a subtle reprisal for Hanoi’s publicly expressed concerns about the Funan Techo Canal project, in particular, its request for the “equitable sharing” of information about the project and careful evaluation of its potential ecological impacts. Phnom Penh has consistently called the project its “domestic matter” and has announced plans to begin construction in August.

The predictable impact has been to strain diplomatic relations between the two neighbors. Hun Sen recently asserted that “Cambodia is not inferior to Vietnam” and that “Cambodia knows how to protect its interests; Vietnam does not need to interfere.” His son, Prime Minister Hun Manet, has used this framing to question the “unfair treatment of Cambodia by foreign entities” that are seeking to “interrogate” his government.

This is not the first time the two countries have faced such tensions in their relationship. In a Facebook post, Hun Sen recalled being tarnished by Vietnamese social media users in 2016-2017 regarding his statements over the South China Sea issue. In June 2016, Hun Sen insisted that he would “not support” the international arbitration case initiated by the Philippines against China’s claims over the disputed sea.

Despite Phnom Penh’s request, Hanoi has done little to curb the online criticisms of Cambodia’s government. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry did not issue an official statement until three days after the summons. Even then, it simply stated that both countries have taken “practical and effective measures” to raise public awareness of their relationship but failed to provide details of any concrete measures to address the issue, thus threatening to increase the frictions between the two governments.

Underlying the current diplomatic stand-off is a complex and fraught historical relationship. Vietnamese official discourse has generally framed its ties with Cambodia in terms of the politics of gratitude. Remembering Vietnam’s sacrifices during the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, which led to the installation of the current party in power, has been a common theme in state discourse and media reporting. Rhetoric suggesting that “Cambodia is grateful to Vietnam” is most pervasive on the annual anniversary of the topping of the Khmer Rouge on January 7. Gratitude is intrinsically tied to a sense of “indebtedness,” perpetuating a cycle where reciprocal acts are expected from the Cambodians.

Accordingly, Cambodia is frequently accused of being “ungrateful” when it goes against Vietnam’s wishes. Many Vietnamese see Cambodia’s dogged pursuit of the Funan Techo Canal as an expression of its ingratitude toward Vietnam, and claim that Cambodia is “biting the hand that feeds it.” Extreme nationalists have even gone so far as to call for “punishments” against Cambodia for its “betrayal.” The rise of social media only increases the likelihood that such divisive narratives may infiltrate Cambodian society and exacerbate nationalistic tensions.

From the moment the infrastructure project was announced, the Vietnamese public’s views of Cambodia have been fraught with skepticism. This has been fueled by extensive speculation, including by the Vietnam-based Oriental Research Development Institute, about the canal’s potential military use by China. This argument rests entirely on the views of unnamed “military experts” cited in the piece, but it has both worried the Vietnamese public and exasperated Cambodian officials and media outlets. A Cambodian researcher even wrote that Vietnam was seeking to counterbalance Chinese influence in Cambodia by courting Washington’s attention amid the China-U.S. rivalry.

None of this is good for the Vietnam-Cambodia relationship, and historical resentments could resurface if this conundrum is not properly navigated. Many Cambodians view Vietnam as a “traditional enemy” that has long plotted to “absorb” Cambodia. The notion of Vietnamese “expansionism” remains alive in Cambodian historical memory and political culture, as does the claim that Hanoi has a “secret agenda” in Phnom Penh. Hence, Hanoi’s lack of action to address Vietnamese netizens’ criticisms of Hun Sen could be seen by Cambodians as a calculated effort to get Cambodia to bend to its will. There was a precedent where some Cambodians believed Hanoi held back on border demarcation in response to Phnom Penh withholding its diplomatic support for Vietnam’s stand on the South China Sea issue.

By responding too forcefully to the canal project, Vietnam also risks a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing Cambodia into China’s arms. Just four days after summoning the Vietnamese ambassador, Sok Chenda Sophea visited China, where his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi reaffirmed Beijing’s support for the “transportation, logistics, and irrigation systems” of the “strategically important Funan Techo Canal” while pledging to deepen the bilateral “comprehensive strategic cooperation.”

Vietnam now has few good options, as Hun Manet, unlike his father, no longer feels burdened with historical gratitude for the liberation of Phnom Penh in 1979. Instead, the new prime minister is seemingly committed to diluting Vietnam’s influence in Cambodia. On May 30, Hun Manet announced the construction of the canal would begin in August, as procrastination would cause “a lot of speculation.” He added, “We will not let the naysayers tell us this is not possible.”

In this way, he is seeking to leverage Cambodian nationalism to bolster the new government’s legitimacy. In times of intense anti-Vietnamese sentiments, Cambodian leaders tend to adopt a harder line on Vietnam. When the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost public support at the 2013 election, the Hun Sen government urged Hanoi to stop its “encroachment” on Cambodian land and play along with the opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which blasted the CPP for bowing to Vietnam’s influence.

With hypernationalism sweeping Vietnamese social media, Hanoi runs the danger of alienating its “traditional friendship” with Phnom Penh if its public diplomacy remains vague. When the two neighbors are at odds over competing interests, the only way to reach mutual consensus is for them to be sincere and committed in their behaviors.

But things are looking gloomy. Vietnamese citizenry are mostly unaware that Cambodia is a “high priority” for Vietnamese foreign policymakers, leading to confusion and even misconduct, particularly when bilateral ties are strained. Moreover, while a Department of Vietnamese Studies was established at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2022, a similar Department of Cambodian Studies is yet to be established at any Vietnamese university. What is more worrisome is the lack of essential initiatives to educate young Vietnamese about cultural and historical ties that shape the bilateral relationship.

This “Cambodia vacuum” in Vietnam’s discourse and academia needs fixing since effective public diplomacy relies on educating the public about the country’s foreign policy goals in a clear and concise manner. Instead of simply leaning on the bland slogan “good neighbors, traditional friendship, comprehensive, long-lasting, sustainable cooperation,” Hanoi should mitigate unwarranted pique among the populace through a well-thought-out strategy that prioritizes intimate ties with Phnom Penh. This requires Vietnamese and Cambodian officials, businesses, and citizens to engage in meaningful dialogues that encompass language, culture, and academia, if they are to improve mutual understanding and sympathy.

By Huynh Tam Sang & Mai Vu Thao My – The Diplomat – June 7, 2024

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