This month Cambodia commemorated its 65th Independence Day, the anniversary of the declaration by the late King Norodom Sihanouk on November 9, 1953. Marking this national celebration, the country put on its usual pompous fanfare, and earlier Hun Sen “rewarded” Vietnam with an 11th monument built to honor Cambodia-Vietnam “friendship.”

This month also marks the first anniversary of the main opposition being dissolved and banned by the regime, with 3 million voters deemed as outlawed.

A question that must be asked: Is there such a thing as Cambodian “independence”? To answer this question, one must look at how Hun Sen defines Cambodian “nationalism” through his actions.

Like everything else, from faux democracy to a controlled judiciary and flawed elections, Hun Sen’s nationalism is part a planned process aimed at legitimizing his legacy as a “Lord and Savior” – and, of course, as Vietnam’s protégé – even if it means using force, threats and even killings.

Hun Sen’s nationalism: duty to Vietnam

Cambodia’s ambassador to Hanoi, Prak Nguon Hong, reportedly marked Independence Day on November 9 by thanking Vietnam for its wholehearted assistance and sacrifice to free Cambodians from Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in 1979 and bring independence, happiness, and prosperity to Cambodia today.

Building one monument to mark a “friendship” between Cambodia and Vietnam might be acceptable, but 11 monuments? And more to come? Surely this is not nationalism. The motive and agenda are plain and obvious.

These monuments built on landmark sites, not to mention the extravagant costs as millions live in abject poverty – not that Hun Sen would reveal who paid for them – should cause great disquiet among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the international community.

Does this mean the other ASEAN member states are not Cambodia’s friends? And what about the international community, which helped to rehabilitate Cambodia after Vietnam’s occupation in 1979? Don’t those countries deserve at least a single monument? How about China, or Japan? And especially Australia, which has often been cited as a good friend of Cambodia – but with no monument dedicated to that friendship.

Without a doubt, Cambodia under Hun Sen is a nation with little apprehension of nationalism. The regime merely uses the international community for economic benefit, including China, while remaining subservient only to Vietnam.

The building of these monuments across the country is not only a betrayal to Cambodians but also shows a great lack of a basic yet fundamental concept of nationalism.

Hun Sen’s regime today is no different to that of a regime described in 1983 as the “new Cambodian communist regime that is subservient to the Vietnamese communist system.”

It is a regime embarked on preposterous efforts to rewrite Cambodia’s history in an attempt to legitimize Hun Sen and the Vietnamese as Cambodia’s “rescuers.”

In reality it is part of the Vietnamese-established plan to control Cambodia and Laos – of course, fortified under the new international language of “partnership and cooperation.” But the end result is the same.

Vietnam the invader

To say that Cambodia totally lacks genuine nationalists is to condemn the banned opposition. In fact, it is the dissolved opposition party who have had a long history of objecting to the erection of those “friendship” monuments. The reason for dissolving the opposition party was Hun Sen’s fear that it represented an alternative political force with strong nationalism.

The reality was the 1979 event that Hun Sen has been manipulating virulently based on justification that Vietnam intervened to save Cambodia was internationally recognized as an invasion. The United Nations never recognized the Cambodian-Vietnamese government. 

At the height of the invasion in 1979, ASEAN determined that Vietnam was fulfilling its “historical ambition” of dominating all of Indochina.

Evidently, refugees who fled Cambodia in 1979 were more fearful of the Vietnamese “saviors” than of the mass killers under Pol Pot. Cambodian survivors of Pol Pot knew that their fate, had they chosen to remain in Cambodia, would be no different under the Vietnamese.

Nationalism can be interpreted differently, and for Cambodians, at present it means nothing more than just looking after Cambodia’s interests. Gone are the days when the late King Sihanouk spoke before the United Nations in 1979, demanding that Vietnam withdraw from Cambodia: “Our people are fighting and will fight to death,” he said. “We may lose everything but we will never lose our national honor.”

Cambodia’s national interests

Younger Cambodians have grown up over the last 30 years cultivated by a regime determined to redefine the country’s national honor through nepotism, neo-patrimonialism and political subservient to Vietnam, under so-called “economic development.”

Under Hun Sen, Cambodian nationalism, like human rights and democracy, is a mere commodity – selectively and discriminately traded off by powerful individuals and corporations – instigated by no one other than Hun Sen himself.

For Cambodians, after Hun Sen granted special land concession to Vietnam for 99 years, the end result will ultimately see this “land concession” becoming another Kampuchea Krom – part of Cambodia that was gradually annexed by Vietnam in the 1800s.

Awarding land concessions for 99 years to international corporations is in no way justified by Cambodia’s national interests. Cambodians are aware of this, yet powerless, as Hun Sen’s regime is successfully exploiting international aid as a source of political legitimacy.

Nationalism is like the financial system operated by this regime – there is no fixed currency. Depending on which part of the country people reside in, whether it be Thai baht, Vietnamese dong, Australian dollars or US dollars, Cambodia accepts it. In the same way, nationalism can be transacted, so long as the price is right and traders play by the rules.

A typical example the Hun Sen regime’s discriminatively conditioned Cambodian nationalism is against Thailand. Whether it involve Cambodia’s cultural identity as in the case of Angkor Wat, or the historical conflict over the Preah Vihear temple on the border with Thailand, whenever an incident involves that western neighbor, the regime is quick to comment.

On the other hand, if ordinary Cambodians at the border with Vietnam complain of sovereignty violations by Vietnamese officials into their villages, it is highly unlikely that Hun Sen’s regime would come to their aid. Yet if that kind of incident had occurred with Thailand, then Hun Sen would have invoked nationalism and urging the people to defend Cambodia.

After Cambodia celebrated its 65th Independence Day, for nationalism and independence to have any relevance to Cambodians, the country’s history should be enriched with past and present events – documented by those whose suffering is steeped in tears for the innocent men and women whose lives were lost while defending Cambodia, lest we forget.

But as long as Hun Sen and his regime continue to create faux legacies, like his sham election and banning the political opposition party, the pain and suffering of victims will forever be encrypted into their souls.

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Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek OAM is a principal of E K Lawyers (Sydney). He fled Cambodia in 1979 and arrived in Sydney as a refugee in 1983.

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