If you rely on official statements, Cambodia and Vietnam have a long tradition of friendship owing to the strong ties between their leaders and ruling parties. But an undercurrent of irritants such as constant border incidents, though minimal, suggests deep discontent or distrust on both sides.
It is worth remembering that before being labeled as China’s puppet, Cambodia used to be called Vietnam’s puppet.
It is normal for small states to be seen as puppets of stronger states that they have good relations with. “Puppet theory” is being used to humiliate small states and allege their weaknesses, lack of independence and sovereignty when their national interest does not fit with geopolitical agenda and interest of the theory’s proponents. It can be shaped through repetition of accusations.
For instance, when the Pentagon asserted that Beijing had likely considered locations for military logistics facilities in five Southeast Asian countries, Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, drew a simple conclusion that “such willingness [to host a Chinese base] appears to be in short supply, except in the case of Cambodia.”
For a small state like Cambodia, none of its arguments seem to make sense or be convincing enough for regional pundits. To those observers, explanations and rejections by Cambodia’s prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister combined don’t seem to carry the same weight as a single explanation by the Indonesian foreign minister.
This is how “puppet theory” is being created.
It seems that against the same Cambodian government, “puppet theory” is being shifted from Vietnam to China. This is probably one of the major factors for growing distrust between Cambodia and Vietnam. But the story is two-sided.
From Vietnam’s view, Cambodia is distrusted because of its growing good relations with China that has competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. This act is considered “ungrateful” for the lives Vietnam sacrificed to liberate Cambodia from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime or save from national extinction.
From Cambodia’s view, a centuries-old history of invasion, thorny issues of borders, illegal Vietnamese immigrants and lack of independence or again the “Vietnam’s puppet theory” compound distrust.
Cambodia has a sense of inferiority when its sacrifice for Vietnam’s quest for independence and unification is not equally appreciated. Cambodia’s support such as the “Sihanouk Trail” that led to the US bombing causing at least 100,000 Cambodian civilian casualties during the Vietnam War is a case in point.
While Cambodia-Vietnam friendship monuments have been built in the capital Phnom Penh and many provinces in Cambodia, the equivalent memorials are not seen in Vietnam to honor the loss of Cambodian lives for Vietnam’s independence and reunification.
For the Cambodian opposition, the “Vietnam’s puppet theory” still works very effectively and powerfully to ignite nationalism. The topic of the border is well known to all parties as a deeply contentious issue in Cambodian politics and one that goes to the heart of Cambodian nationalism. Thus the constant incidents and unilateral actions by Vietnam at the border raised question about Vietnam’s motives.
These actions are seen as a form of indirect interference in Cambodian domestic politics and a cause to destabilize the support base of the incumbent Cambodian government. Ultimately, they challenge the legitimacy of the Cambodian government when increasingly demanding voters see it as too soft on border protection.
To solidify a healthy relationship, both countries should focus more on building bonds that link friendship and create the bedrock for good neighborliness.
At the moment, both countries seem to focus too much on the past. While bonds can be built on past sacrifices, they can also be built through investment in the future such as enhancement of people-to-people exchanges, mutual understanding and mutual respect.
Both sides need to remember that their peace and war are intertwined. The Vietnam War did not stop at the Vietnamese border nor did the destruction of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime stop at the Cambodian border. Both countries need to understand that they need one another to ensure domestic and regional peace and stability.
Consolidating mutual trust is time-consuming and requires a lot of investment but still it costs less than facing the challenges of conflicts and instabilities.
An inspiration can be taken from the longstanding program called the “Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Program” (SSEAYP) funded by the Japanese government to gather youth from Southeast Asian countries and Japan for an intensive period of exchanges.
Probably, Cambodia and Vietnam could create a “Ship for Mekong Youth Friendship Program” gathering youth on a ship journey from Vietnam’s Mekong delta up to Cambodia’s Tonle Sap to create opportunities for youth to open their hearts to learn from one another on topics from culture to issues affecting the region such as climate change and its impact on the livelihood of people in the region.
The two countries could also consider setting up an annual Cambodia-Vietnam Student Conference by emulating the like of the Japan-America Student Conference (JASC), which is a student-led program, gathering students from both countries from various backgrounds to the rotating host country for site visits and to conduct in-depth exchanges and debates on bilateral relations.
Of course, there can be many kinds of innovative action for that purpose, but all action should ensure strong people bonds from all levels for the sake of durable trust and friendship.