Vietnam’s hidden hand in Cambodia’s impasse

By Hassan A Kasem , Asia Times

Cambodia, for all its pretensions towards sovereignty and democracy, has yet to free itself from neighboring Vietnam’s political and strategic grip 20 years after United Nations-organized elections ended its debilitating civil war. The international community has since invested over US$2 billion on peace initiatives to repair the damage done by Vietnam’s 1979 invasion and seizure of power. Yet Hanoi continues to exercise covert power over the country through its proxy ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).

Members of Cambodian People’s Party (Right to left) Chairman Chea Sim, Vice-Chairman Hun Sen, Honorary Chairman Heng Samrin

Most Khmer citizens fail to fathom the depths of the ongoing subterfuge. Many have conveniently chosen ignorance over truth, as is common among traumatized populations in post-conflict societies. Western audiences, including the international donor community that continues to bankroll the CPP’s corrupt and compromised tenure, should be less easily forgiven for turning a blind eye to Vietnam’s still strong command over the country.

Some in the West saw Vietnam as a magnanimous liberator in 1979, an occupying army that rescued Cambodia from the radical Khmer Rouge regime’s massacre of its own people. But Hanoi’s use of force turned a difficult situation to its geopolitical advantage, putting an end to the Khmer Rouge regime’s nationalistic stance vis-a-vis Vietnam, including its combative insistence on resolutions to border disputes held over from the French colonial era.

Hanoi’s invasion and occupation with over 200,000 troops under the direction of communist revolutionary, politician and diplomat Le Duc Tho further weakened a nation reeling from the anti-communist war and Khmer-on-Khmer death and destruction. A number of brave revolutionary leaders who fell from grace at Hanoi’s behest, including ex-prime minister Pen Sovann, have claimed Vietnamese troops deliberately looted and plundered national treasures and wealth during the invasion. Those installed into power by Hanoi, including incumbent prime minister Hun Sen, subsequently brushed off the theft as a mere war casualty.

To some Khmers, including many opposition politicians attached to the aptly named Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hanoi is able to maintain its grip on Cambodia through its historical ties to Hun Sen and the CPP. CNRP members have not spoken without substantiation, feeling it would be morally wrong to exchange denial of truth for peace and power-sharing. The late King Norodom Sihanouk, for instance, said pointedly at a Paris meeting with his compatriots in early 1990 that, “it’s meaningless to accept peace without independence, sovereignty and dignity”.

After occupying Cambodia for more than a decade from 1979-89, Hanoi developed an elaborate, behind-the-scenes network of control that is in many ways still in place today. It first installed a proxy administration in 1979 known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) run by the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which morphed into the CPP in the early 1990’s after Vietnamese troops ostensibly withdrew from the country.

The KPRP was a direct offshoot of the Indochina communist Party formed in the 1930s with Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as its head. Following its unilateral and unmonitored symbolic withdrawal of troops in 1989, hundreds, if not thousands, of Vietnamese “experts” stayed behind, adopted Khmer names and continued to assist their comrades at every important government ministry and department. Nowadays, only locals can tell who is really Vietnamese and who is Khmer.

Hanoi created a perfect ally in the CPP to defend and protect its substantial interests in Cambodia, ranging from land border areas, to maritime concessions, to allowances for illegal Vietnamese immigrants to settle unperturbed throughout the country. Many CPP leaders and high-ranking officials would not have their prestigious positions and titles without Vietnamese backing: they know it, and Hanoi knows it.

Foreign academics have corroborated in detail the ongoing special relationship. Michael Benge, a former American prisoner of war in Vietnam who speaks fluent Vietnamese and many ethnic minority dialects, wrote in 2007 that “Hanoi maintains a contingent of 3,000 troops, a mixture of special forces and intelligence agents, with tanks and helicopters, in a huge compound about two kilometers outside Phnom Penh right next to Hun Sen’s Tuol Krassaing fortress near Takhmau”.

Extending that analysis, local intelligence sources have said when border clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops first erupted in 2008, at least one battalion of Vietnamese elite units was put on standby to assist their Cambodian comrades.

Dr Markus Karbaum, a German academic, revealed in an April Southeast Asia Globe article that Vietnamese officials shared dossiers kept on Cambodia’s current ruling elite with the former East Germany’s Stasi soon after their defection from the Khmer Rouge in 1977. A young Hun Sen, whose real name according to his dossier was “Hun Bonal”, referred to himself as “Hai Phuc”, a Vietnamese name, apparently to ingratiate himself with Hanoi. He had served as a Khmer Rouge battalion commander but downplayed his role in commanding over 2,000 soldiers along their shared border at a time the Khmer Rouge had launched many violent cross-border assaults into Vietnam.

The Stasi archive reveals that Hun Sen and other current CPP leaders were first placed in a detention camp and ordered by Vietnamese authorities to write their own biographies. Vietnam’s own assessments of those who sought to shift their allegiance to Hanoi were often unforgiving. Current CPP stalwart and president of the Cambodian Senate Chea Sim, for instance, was characterized as “conciliatory, craven and undecided”. Heng Samrin, CPP honorary president and a National Assembly chairman, is referred to in the Stasi archive as of “a low education .. [He] does not talk a lot and sometimes he has an inferiority complex … his political understanding is limited”.

While Vietnamese-backed CPP politicians have unquestionably grown into their roles over the years, these intelligence assessments are noteworthy considering Cambodia has been ruled or co-ruled uninterrupted by the CPP ever since it was first installed into power after Vietnam’s 1979 invasion. While younger CPP rank and file members are known to have grown weary of the same old names and faces of their party leaders, any generational transition is complicated by Vietnam’s continued influence over the party and its historical ties to the old guard.

Read the full article by Hassan A Kasem from Asia Times.

Báo Người Việt hoan nghênh quý vị độc giả đóng góp và trao đổi ý kiến. Chúng tôi xin quý vị theo một số quy tắc sau đây:

Tôn trọng sự thật.
Tôn trọng các quan điểm bất đồng.
Dùng ngôn ngữ lễ độ, tương kính.
Không cổ võ độc tài phản dân chủ.
Không cổ động bạo lực và óc kỳ thị.
Không vi phạm đời tư, không mạ lỵ cá nhân cũng như tập thể.

Tòa soạn sẽ từ chối đăng tải các ý kiến không theo những quy tắc trên.

Xin quý vị dùng chữ Việt có đánh dấu đầy đủ. Những thư viết không dấu có thể bị từ chối vì dễ gây hiểu lầm cho người đọc. Tòa soạn có thể hiệu đính lời văn nhưng không thay đổi ý kiến của độc giả, và sẽ không đăng các bức thư chỉ lập lại ý kiến đã nhiều người viết. Việc đăng tải các bức thư không có nghĩa báo Người Việt đồng ý với tác giả.

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