Vietnamese Presence in Cambodia
Story and Photo Published in: The Nation Review Bangkok October 1990; Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) October 1990
By August 1990 I had visited wartime Cambodia twice. The first time a year earlier with BBC Gerry Troyna doing Frontier Run featuring John Swain. Asean had no diplomatic ties with Cambodia, and worse still because of its anti communist stance, Malaysian passport is printed with ‘not valid for travel to Vietnam’ among other communist countries. Vietnam was the only gateway to Cambodia at that time. Fortunately the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok issued the visa on a separate paper clipped on to my passport. In August 1990, New Straits Times associate editor Zainon Ahmad came to Bangkok and asked for help to get to Cambodia. This article was filed for the Nation Review, Bangkok, after that the visit with Zainon.
“Vietnamese soldiers are still in Cambodia,who said they are gone?” sneered Sophiep. A former soldier of the Lon Noi army, Sophiep is now a withered old man who works as a laborer in Phnom Penh.
When he speaks of the Vietnamese and the Thais, both major powers who had fought repeatedly over Cambodia in the past centuries, there is anger and bitterness in his eyes. Without hesitation he said: “I will show you where they are.”
Six kilometers from the town center, in the vicinity of Chamkamon Palace more that a thousand Vietnamese soldiers whom our friend said are Vietnamese troops were jogging on the road at six o’clock in the morning. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts and wearing army shoes, they jogged in unison in groups of a hundred each.
The Vietnamization of Cambodia which Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the resistance often complain about takes many forms. “We employ many Vietnamese technicians and engineers to help us. They are cheaper than Russians or East Europeans. For one Russian engineer we can employ four Vietnamese,” said Chum Bunrong, director of press division of the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh.
“We are a poor country, we need foreign experts to develop the country. How can you charge us about Vietnamization when we employ Vietnamese personnel because they are the obvious choice,” he said in a recent interview.
At Niek Luang ferry crossing, 50 kilometers southeast of Phnom Penh, hordes of Vietnamese money changers assailed visitors. Vietnamese children hawked cakes and soft drinks. “Look at the river banks. Those clusters of nipah huts.They are all new Vietnamese settlements,” said a resident of Niek Luang.
“It is very easy for the Vietnamese to stay here. They just come and register with the district office and they can put up their dwellings anywhere they like. There are Vietnamese officials working side by side with the Khmers in the district office,” he said.
At Bavet border crossing where national Highway One passes into Vietnam, a whole colony of Vietnamese huts had sprung up in the past two years. It is a smuggling haven where foreign cigarettes, liquor, beer, motorcycles, textiles and electronic goods from Singapore and Thailand are smuggled across open rice fields into Vietnam.
Thanh Minh Quanh, an ethnic Chinese trader from Cholon, Ho Chi Minh city, said he comes to PhnomPenh maybe twice a month, sometimes more frequent. He said life is very difficult in Vietnam. The best way for him to make money is to come to Phnom Penh and buy goods and smuggle them back to Vietnam. This way he can make $20-30 a month. It is better than holding a regular job in Ho Chi Minh City, he said.
“Ten thousand Vietnamese cross the border into Cambodia everyday, some going as far as Battambang and Sisophon, depending on the type of goods you are buying. The closer to the Thai border, the cheaper are some of the goods,” said Thanh.
He said the border is wide and easy to cross and the cheapest mode of transport is by boat up the Mekong River. No papers are required, the only hazard for an ethnic Chinese is to be stopped by Vietnamese border guards.
“When they know we are Chinese, they will detain us for a day or two and confiscate our goods or they take money from us and let us go. Still it is worth the risk to take,” the trader said.
When asked how the guards know he is an ethnic Chinese as it is impossible to differentiate him from Vietnamese, he said: “The guards are very sharp. By listening to our accent they can tell us apart. Of course, there are Chinese who speak Vietnamese like a native. They can get away without having to pay anything.”
“In Cambodia we face no problem at all. It is safe on the road. No need to worry about robbery or government troops. The soldiers don’t bother us. A packet of cigarettes will suffice to smoothen things. We just have to look out for thieves lurking in the cheap hotels or rest houses when we sleep,” he explained.
The Vietnamese are found in big numbers all over the prime areas of Cambodia such as Kompong Chanang on the Great Lake, the world’s richest fresh water fishing ground and Phnom Penh with its abundance of tax-free consumer goods. The most visible signs of the Vietnamese presence are in the dozen night clubs in Phnom Penh where comely Vietnamese women dance and solicit among the burgeoning nouveau-rich class.
Officially, there is curfew that begins at 9 pm but dancing goes on until midnight anyhow. Vietnamese domination over the less active Cambodians is best discerned in the clubs. While two years back Khmer women were the only one dancing with the men, today Vietnamese women have completely dominated the rich-picking of the nightclubs and the world’s oldest profession.