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How to Cross Borders – to Become Better Neighbors

By: Norbert Klein Posted: December-20-2010 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 695

We had a reference this week in The Mirror about the dream some people in the country have about America. It is probably safe to say that at the other side, opposite to such a dream to visit, or even to emigrate to the USA, there are the images of historical conflicts between Khmer and Vietnamese people, which extend emotionally until today. All such images need to be tested in reality.

Before looking at some details, it might be useful to consider the context of various other relations. Negative feelings towards Thailand were easily kindled in 2003, leading to attacks on the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh and the destruction of other Thai property with an assessed value of US$56 million in one night, and different opinions about 4.6 square km of land around the Temple of Preah Vihear – not about the temple itself – quickly led to a fairly broad national negative emotional position about Thailand – another country with a long common border.

Interestingly enough, the ever deeper links to China do not result in similarly broad and heated discussions. In November 2009, US$1.6 billion were pledged from China for infrastructure projects to be implemented during the next five years in Cambodia. It is estimated that during the current year of 2010, Cambodia has already imported goods worth about US$1 billion from China, but exported only US$48 million. The Prime Minister was quoted last Monday, before his departure for an official visit to China, that he hoped to sign more than a dozen agreements for loans, grants, and business activities amounting to“billions of dollars.” Though, after the return of the government delegation to Phnom Penh, the amounts announced were only US$300 million in repayable loans and US$15 million in aid, total figures for all other investments, loans, and grants in the relations of Cambodia with China are not easily available in the media – and there is not much public debate.

Compared to this overwhelmingly financial volume, the conflicts about certain agricultural fields at the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, around some few border markers, achieve much wider discussion, and emotions can quickly get high.

I was born in a tri-cultural environment in a border area between Hungary and the former Yugoslavia, where a German minority dating back to the 18th century contributed about one third of the population. But nationalist ideology fanned by Germany which led to the Second Wold War, and Serb nationalism against the other ethnic groups of citizens in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led not only to the end of almost two centuries of our German minority communities there, but also to the break-up of Yugoslavia, with hundreds of thousands of people uprooted or even killed.

It is this experience why I am deeply interested in the reasons why people of different cultural backgrounds do not have only the possibility of mutual enrichment, but also of eminent destruction.

Some years ago, The Cambodia Daily quoted the French philosopher and scholar of law Ernest Renan (1823-1892), who is reputed to have said – about the tensions between different people of Europe – that a nation seems to be a group of people who share the same misunderstanding about their own history, and who hate all their neighbors.

Wherever there are traits of a similar situation, it can lead to violent clashes, as the European history of the last centuries shows. Wherever there are signs that Renan’s verdict might apply, they have to be identified, analyzed, and solved, to avoid further suffering. The European history since 1948 provides some examples how the people of Europe try to tackle this history by establishing different new forms of European communities.

Tensions between Khmers and Vietnamese have existed for centuries, but are they really worth the attention they receive compared to the challenge to invest in maintaining and further developing good neighborly relations for the future?

Yes, in the early 19th century, a Khmer king turned to the Vietnamese asking for protection against the Thais, but in 1833 the Thais invaded Cambodia, exploiting a Vietnamese weakness – all that in a time when there were no clear borders between countries, but rather spheres of influence with some political and cultural centers. But when the Thai political power receded, Vietnam strengthened its position over Khmer interests, until the Thais invaded again. Then in 1863 King Norodom accepted French protection against the Thais – and the French increased their position in the land of the Khmers.

The Vietnamese presently count for 5 % of the population in Cambodia – others say more, others less. As a task to clarify the past, much more details can be brought to light – but it is important to ask to which degree will it help when facing present and future challenges: paying back international debts, overcoming global climate changes and regional ones, resulting from severe changes in the flow of the Mekong, and paying for the import of huge amounts of coal for the two new electricity generating plants (which will be established to lessen the dependency on oil).

Recently, I read biographical notes about a young Cambodian graduate of the Royal University of Phnom Penh who sees, on the one hand, a lot of injustice in society, but still seems to be more concerned about a danger of Vietnamization of Cambodia, and does not appreciate the end of military conflict and elements of stabilization in society, but fears that the people will have more and more “Cambodian bodies with Vietnamese heads.”

I had my first practical education in this field in 1991, working with the Ministry of Agriculture and traveling four days in Vietnam – 10 Cambodia high and medium ranking officials, and 3 foreigners. Before I came to Cambodia, I had been told that 10 years of Vietnamese presence had almost destroyed the Khmer culture (not so much reference was made to the Khmer led Khmer Rouge regime) – but during these 4 days, mostly driving through different Vietnamese provinces, we had difficulties to find the way, to buy fuel and food, and to find a hotel; none of my 10 Cambodian colleagues spoke any Vietnamese at all. – This was, of course, only my limited, personal experience. But I cannot help to put it into the present context of actual and future regional and global challenges.

Why do the border problems of some villages involving comparatively small pieces of land at the border to Vietnam received wide national interest, while the communities of victimized people, who are losing their traditional places of life and agricultural work to larger international business interests, are often left to fight alone? Is there any need, and any chance, for a certain de-nationalization of attitudes and activities, such as it is happening in some other parts of the world? What could help in such a process?

I do not have any information about the present “image” of Cambodia in Vietnam. But it is still an interesting fact that tourists from Vietnam to Cambodia are now on top of the list in 2010 – while the highest number of foreign tourists to Cambodia was held by tourists from South Korea for the preceding five years.

What kind of “image” about Korea did this create in Cambodia? Or what kind of “image” of Cambodian people did the Koreans take home after their visits here? What kind of personal experiences can lead to some guidance to deal with the increasing internationalization not only of the economies of the world, but also, starting slowly, of many societies?

Norbert KLEIN

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 695 – Friday, 17.11.2010
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror


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