|A map of “Khmer Krom,” territory once dominated by
Khmer speakers before it was conquered by Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Image Source: Douc Sokha, “សហគមន៍ខ្មែរក្រោមថារកឃើញឯកសារជាង៤០០០ទំព័រ ទាក់ទងនឹងការកាត់ទឹកដីកម្ពុជាក្រោមឲ្យវៀតណាម“, Vod Hot News (15 February 2015)
Americans are rarely disinterested observers when watching elections held in foreign climes. The further outside the Western world Americans roam the more lopsided their views tend to be. Those Americans who are familiar with Cambodian politics are overwhelmingly supporters of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), opposition party to Hun Sen’s one man autocracy, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). In terms of human rights, the CNRP’s hands are far less bloody than Hun Sen’s regime, while the party’s young, media-savvy, and loudly democratic base are just the thing needed to melt the tender heart of any Western activist. But it is not hard to detect a realpolitik slant behind American interest in the CNRP. There is a feeling, more common to observers who focus on the larger diplomatic and military events of the entire region instead of Cambodia specifically, that a CNRP led Cambodia would be a Cambodia more amenable to American interests. In a broad sense this is probably true. The young masses of Cambodia—the CNRP’s main voting demographic—are great fans of America, and the party’s foreign policy platform strikes a far more balanced tone than the unabashedly Sino-centric foreign policy favored by the CPP. Democrats stick together, the story goes: if push comes to shove a truly democratic Cambodia would favor democratic America over authoritarian China.
The problem with this rosy vision is the diplomatic controversy forcing Phnom Penh to choose between the United States and China in the first place. The South China Sea is the wedge issue of Asia. Without the sea’s territorial squabbles it is unlikely the United States would be courting the poor, rick-shaw filled capitals of the region at all. China’s pressing interests in the South China Sea are natural and obvious. The United State’s are remarkably less so, but now that American prestige and ‘credibility’ has been placed on her ability to deter China from island building and reef stealing, the contest is set. All that remains is for the lines to be divided. In such a contest between global giants humble Cambodia is a more useful ally than it may seem—as was made apparent in 2012, when Cambodia took advantage of its position as chairman of the annual ASEAN summit to completely sabotage proceedings in China’s favor. America and her allies cannot afford many more diplomatic disasters like 2012. Thus they look to the growing influence of the CNRP—which weilds greater power than any opposition group has since Hun Sen’s bloody 1997 purge of the royalist FUCINPEC party—for hope.
This hope is misplaced. This has been clear for quite some time, but the controversies that have gripped Cambodian politics over the last two weeks makes this clearer than ever. The scandal—though unreported by all media outlets in the West—illustrates quite well how the dynamics of Cambodia’s inner politics are expressed in its international relations, and why a CNRP led Cambodia is unlikely to ever take the American line in the South China Sea.
The facts of the matter are these: on June 21st Um Sam An and Real Khamerin, MPs for the CNRP, led a group of some 250 monks, youth activists, and party members to inspect the border dividing Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province from Vietnam’s Long An province. The stated intent of this expedition was to investigate whether or not Vietnamese government had been building on the Cambodian side of the border, as activists had claimed. On the way there—either several dozen meters within Long An or several dozen meters on the Svay Rieng side of the line, depending on who is telling the story—they were met by a hundred or so Vietnamese villagers, who blocked the road with brandished sticks. A scuffle ensued. Before the melee was over some 20 Cambodians and 7 Vietnamese were injured, including one of the MPs who led the expedition.
Then the Cambodian internets went crazy.
See, this was not the first time this had happened. Complaints of Vietnamese encroachment on the Cambodian border have been growing louder for a year now and nationalist protests have been staged several times in response. Never the type to let claims of Vietnamese perfidy pass them by, CNRP politicians were quick to make this a top-profile scandal. A few weeks before Sam An and Khamerin’s ill fated venture, another CNRP MP led his own highly publicized fact-finding expedition to the border (in this case to Ratakiri). His group was also met with a blockade, though here they were not blocked with villagers holding sticks, but soldiers welding electric batons and machine guns. (Some have suggested that the villagers who met the June 21st expedition were actually soldiers in plainclothes. Impossible to verify, but a real possibility—the optics of local villagers armed with sticks are far better than soldiers with AK-47s facing down unarmed monks). When the MP reported that he had been “attacked” by the soldiers, the results were predictable: the CNRP has accused the CPP of cooperation with the Vietnamese and refusal to protect Cambodian citizens from foreign invaders. CNRP head Sam Rainsy signaled how much traction he thinks his party can get from the controversy when he declared the 2005 border treaty issued between Vietnam and Cambodia should be considered null and that the entire thing should be renegotiated with his party’s participation. Other CNRP members demanded that the government cease all efforts to demarcate the border until 2018, after the next election. That was all a result of the first confrontation between CNRP activists and Vietnamese border guards. After the second incident accusations of treachery grew to such a fury pitch that Hun Sen’s government was forced into arranging border talks to press the Vietnamese government for concessions.
The emotion this issue generates is hard to understand if you are not familiar with Khmer nationalism and its ethnic prerogatives. Southeast Asia is a region of ethnic disharmony, but few of its prejudices—outside of Burma, at least—can match the feelings of distrust and disgust the average Khmer feels towards the Vietnamese. If readers recall how conservative Americans talked about the Soviet Union at the height of communist power, add the way their counterparts in modern Europe discuss Arab immigration now, and then throw in a dash of the type of humiliation that marked Germany in interwar years, then they will have a fair idea of how wild and vitriolic a force anti-Vietnamese rhetoric can be in Cambodian politics.
Cambodians remember the centuries of warfare that led Vietnamese armies to pillage the Khmer heartland and strip away more than half of its territory. Cambodian nationalists still pine for “Khmer krom” (ខ្មែរក្រោម, lit: “outside Khmer”), a term used to refer both to ethnic Khmer living outside of Cambodia and to the lands in the lower Mekong delta that were conquered by the Vietnamese two centuries ago. Relations between the two groups did not improve during the period of French control, a time in which the Vietnamese were given privileged status and imperial policy supported Vietnamese migration to the Cambodian heartland. Things only worsened with the French withdrawal. Historically informed Cambodians are quick to point out that the Khmer Rouge was a creation of the Viet-Cong; the more conspiratorial of their countrymen insist that the Khmer Rouge’s massacres were directed by them as well. Conspiratorial or not, all Cambodians remember that 150,000 Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia in 1978 and then occupied their country as foreign conquerors for the next ten years. During this time the spigot of Vietnamese migrants moving into Cambodia was opened once again, sharpening fears that Vietnam sought to permanently subvert Khmer autonomy. While both Vietnamese immigration and government influence has waned in the days since Hanoi ordered its troops to withdraw from Cambodian territory, distrust of Vietnam’s government and disgust felt towards Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority remains. You can see this even in the Khmer communities of the United States; to walk the streets of an American Cambodiatown is to see half a dozen posters warning of Vietnamese aggression, or (if you speak Khmer) be pressed to attend activist get-togethers or make donations to fight Vietnamese imperialism. 
Many of these donations go straight into the coffers of the CNRP. Anti-Vietnamese agitation is a game the CNRP cannot lose. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge the man they chose to head their new puppet regime was none other than Hun Sen.  Hun Sen was able to hold onto power after they withdrew, and the party which he heads is a direct descendent of the party the Vietnamese created to rule Cambodia. Though this may seem like ancient history (the Vietnamese withdrew two decades ago), Hun Sen remains vulnerable to nationalist claims that he is still little more than a Vietnamese puppet. His regime’s abuses are regularly blamed on Vietnamese designs—I have personal friends who insist that the soldiers who broke up the January 2014 election protests were all Viet—and everything from the Prime Minister’s fluency in Vietnamese to his refusal to deport all ethnic Vietnamese from Cambodia are used as irrefutable proof of his traitorous intent. There is a kernel of truth behind these accusations. Hun Sen has worked hard to nip anti-Vietnamese sentiment before it ever grows to explosive (or violent) levels, and he has proven extremely hesitant to rock the boat with his old—and in every way much more powerful—patrons in Hanoi. In fact, the decision to force the Vietnamese into border talks next week is an unusual and to my knowledge unprecedented departure from normal policy. Even if the meeting amounts to nothing more than political theatre, its mere occurrence is is a testament both growing to the power of Cambodian nationalism and the increasing influence of the CNRP in Cambodian politics.
Which brings us back to the South China Sea. The critical thing to remember in discussions of Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea is that Cambodia’s relationship with Vietnam is the most important and most explosive issue in Cambodian domestic politics. Of the two parties it is the democratic CNRP that has taken the harsher line against the Vietnamese—one could say that it is their defining issue. Thus as long as Vietnam is party to the South China Sea disputes, the natural impulse among CNRP members will be to favor whoever opposes them. This isn’t mere speculation on my part. Here is what CNRP party chief Sam Rainsy had to say about the South China Sea last year:
“[W]e are on the side of China, and we support China in fighting against Vietnam over the South China Sea issue,” Mr. Rainsy told a crowd of about 1,000 party supporters at the CNRP’s provincial headquarters in Siem Reap city.
During his speech, Mr. Rainsy again used anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, and repeatedly referred to the Vietnamese and Vietnam as “yuon,” a word some consider derogatory to describe the Vietnamese.
“It [Vietnam] goes and invades everywhere, and it steals land from Cambodians because the illegal government is a puppet of yuon,” he said in his speech.
“The islands belong to China, but yuon is trying to occupy [the islands] from China, because yuon is very bad,” Mr. Rainsy said. 
A few months later Rainsy reiterated his position on his official Facebook page (which in the internet based political culture of the CNRP is tantamount to giving a press interview):
My position vis-à-vis America, China and Vietnam
With regard to internal politics, more precisely the strengthening of democracy and the defense of human rights, we will continue to seek the support of America because we share the same values.
But in international relations, ideology has become secondary, even irrelevant, at a time when national and strategic interests are the determining factors in choosing friends and allies. Look at the evolving relations between Vietnam and the US: the two former enemies – one communist, the other one capitalist – have become good friends and allies.
And when it comes to ensuring the survival of Cambodia as an independent nation, there is a saying as old as the world: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
By siding with China in her territorial dispute with Vietnam in the South China Sea, Cambodia could increase its chance to secure a fair resolution to its own territorial dispute with Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand, which is part of, or adjacent to, the South China Sea. The objective would be to also internationalize the maritime conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam because, as a matter of consistency, Vietnam, in her relations with China, cannot call for the respect of international legal principles that she herself doesn’t respect in her relations with Cambodia. The international community, whose support Vietnam is counting on, cannot use double standards and turn a blind eye to Vietnam’s infringing on Cambodia’s territorial waters and islands. 
Now the CNRP has—in English at least—distanced itself from Sam Rainsy’s rather heated rhetoric and adopted a more neutral position. But it isn’t hard to see where their hearts lie. Indeed, as the party’s spats over the border with Vietnam grow more intense we should expect their hearts to harden. From the CNRP’s point of view, the Vietnamese are doing to the Cambodians exactly what the Chinese are doing to the Vietnamese—but in place of airstrips and islands, the Vietnamese are building roads and irrigation ponds. It is ludicrous to expect the CNRP to support the territorial rights of a country who is violating their own. No amount of American aid or moral opprobrium can make that kind of political contortion possible. As Lynn Rees might say, the wheel of the mandala has turned. There is very little Washington can do about it.
If present trends predict the future, the CNRP will continue to grow in power and influence, and they will start to exercise substantial pull on Cambodia’s foreign policy. Yet that is the crux of the problem. The CNRP base loves American democracy—but it hates Vietnam much, much more.
Other posts at The Scholar’s Stage on Cambodian Politics:
“There Will Be No Cambodian Spring.”
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 15 August 2015.
Other posts at the Scholar’s Stage on the South China Sea disputes:
“A Few Comments of China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Crisis“
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 22 May 2014.
 Yes, this has actually happened to me. And I’m not Khmer!
 Things are actually a tad bit more complicated than this; Hun Sen was the second man he Vietnamese chose, elevated to power after the first passed away.
 Kuch Naren, “Rainsy Says CNRP Backs China, Not Vietnam, in Sea Dispute,” Cambodia Daily (11 January 2014)
 Sam Rainsy, “My Position vis-a-vis America, China, and Vietnam,” Facebook Status Update (21 April 2014).