Cambodia youth have crucial roles to play in improving and strengthening Cambodia-Vietnam relations, write Kimkong Heng & Sovinda Po.
Cambodia has long been the victim of her rising neighbuors, Thailand and Vietnam. In 1863, to ensure that Cambodia could still remain united as a single country and not to be swallowed by her two stronger neighbours, King Norodom decided to invite France to make Cambodia its protectorate. A century later, with the intention to dominate and turn Indochina into a communist bloc under its control, Vietnam invaded Cambodia on grounds of liberating the latter from the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Because of increasing diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community, however, Vietnam was forced to withdraw its troops from Cambodia in 1989. Chronic anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodians, or so-called ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, has remained ever since
One of the great challenges in Cambodia-Vietnam bilateral relations is the perception of many Cambodian people, who even long before the 1979 Vietnamese invasion, saw Vietnam as a long-term threat to Cambodia’s land. As noted in Phnom Penh Post, “quite clearly, forms of Cambodian racism towards Vietnam and the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia did not develop in a historical vacuum but rather developed in response to the expansionist tendencies of the pre-colonial imperial state”. Vietnam encroached Prey Nokor, including Kampuchea Krom (formerly a Cambodian territory) and institutionalised it as its own city, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Such stories and other similar narratives about Vietnam’s land grabbing ideology were taught in Cambodian schools and passed down from one generation to another. Moreover, the contemporary instances of the ongoing border dispute between Cambodia and Vietnam has also reinforced such perceptions. One Cambodian scholar posits that the border dispute, compounded by anti-Vietnam nationalism, has gained momentum since the national election in 2013 and the trend is not likely to fade away any time soon.
Cambodia’s efforts to improve the Cambodia-Vietnam relations
The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) under Hun Sen’s leadership has been very active in normalising and cementing Cambodian ties with Vietnam. In June 2015 during the visit of Le Hong Anh, a member of the politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Hun Sen told the Vietnamese counterpart to remain calm so that peace and stability could be maintained along the border. At the same year, Hun Sen also asked the UN for original Cambodian maps to verify the ongoing border demarcation process between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Although this attempt has not yielded a fruitful result, because both parties have not reached common agreement, the general public in Cambodia tended to view it as a major effort to settle the border dispute. Moreover, several dimensions of bilateral cooperation between the two countries have been initiated and increased. There is much cooperation in terms of trade, investments, military-to-military ties, and government-to-government relations, but one of the most important dimensions in Cambodian-Vietnamese relations which seems to receive less attention is people-to-people connectivity.
Cambodian youth, the backbone of the Cambodian nation, have vital roles to play to improve and strengthen relations between the two countries.
The roles of Cambodian youth
Despite many initiatives such as youth exchange programs both governments have introduced to salvage the troubled relationship between the two countries, youth of both nations still have crucial roles to play.
First, Cambodian youth must learn and understand their own history. Only after they have a profound insight into their own history will they be able to make sound judgment and rational decisions when it comes to issues related to Cambodia-Vietnam relations. As Chheang Vannarith notes, a clear understanding of history can help promote reconciliation between former enemy countries because history offers light for future directions.
Second, Cambodian youth must learn to develop open-minded and positive mindsets. Instead of sticking to a negative anti-Vietnamese worldview, they should learn to ‘jettison’ their Vietnam syndrome by being more open and realistic in their thinking and attitudes. Although Cambodia and Vietnam were two former foes, both nations are now ASEAN friends. Thus, establishing more and improved people-to-people connectivity between the two neighbouring countries is vitally important; however, any connectivity at a micro level will not flourish unless Cambodian youth can start learning to view their Vietnamese counterparts as friends, not traditional enemies.
Third, Cambodian youth must also learn to think and act as global citizens. Living in a global society, in particular within ASEAN, younger Cambodian generations must be able to live harmoniously and peacefully with other nationalities, especially the Vietnamese. Although Vietnam is generally not well-received among Cambodians, young and old, the country is vital to Cambodia’s national security because of its geopolitical proximity to Cambodia. In this respect, the ability to refrain from despising anything with the name ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Vietnamese’ attached to it is absolutely crucial for Cambodian young people if they wish to be seen as global citizens.
Finally, it is a must for Cambodian youth to engage in all forms of knowledge and skill development. One problem Cambodia is facing and will continue to face in the foreseeable future is the lack of a culture of reading. Therefore, as Cambodia aims to become an upper-middle income country by 2030 and a high income country by 2050 (Cambodia’s National Strategic Development Plan 2014-2018), the development of a knowledge-based Cambodian society is of absolute necessity.
In this regard, Cambodian youth who are the future for Cambodia have pivotal roles to play. They can either be future architects of the Cambodian development pathway, including Cambodia’s foreign policy, or prospective captains of the Cambodian ship. Most importantly, they can be Cambodian ambassadors in the making who are responsible for raising the profile of Cambodia in the region and the international stage. They have, in particular, active and fundamental roles to play in Cambodia’s endeavours to enhance its relations with Vietnam. All of these roles require knowledgeable, open-minded, pragmatic and outward-looking Cambodians.
Kimkong Heng is an Assistant Dean for the School of Graduate Studies, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is also a lead editorial assistant of UC Occasional Paper Series. He earned his MA in TESOL from the University of Canberra (Australia) with High Distinction. His areas of interest include language teaching methodology, teacher education, teacher research capacity building, and now foreign policy.
Sovinda Po is a Master student in International Relations at School of Advanced International and Areas Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai, China. His research interests include Cambodia’s foreign policy, China’s foreign policy, China and Cambodia relations, and China and ASEAN relations. His articles appear on the Diplomat, East Asia Forum, IPP Review, and Australian Institute of International Affairs.