Hanoi has strongly criticized a group of “extremists” for burning the flag of Vietnam during a protest by the Khmer Krom ethnic minority in front of the country’s embassy in Phnom Penh, calling on Cambodia to take legal action against those responsible for the incident.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a statement on Wednesday that the act “ran counter to the fine traditional neighborliness between Vietnam and Cambodia and deliberately offended the feelings of the Vietnamese people,” according to a report by Vietnamese state media.
“Vietnam demands that Cambodia strictly try these extremists in accordance with the law and take effective measures to prevent similar actions from repeating in the future,” Binh said.
The protesters had not obtained a license to hold the demonstration, according to Vietnamese media.
On Aug. 12, some 600 Khmer Krom protesters gathered at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh demanding an apology from Hanoi for a June statement made by an embassy official claiming that Khmer Kampuchea Krom provinces had long been under Vietnam’s control.
The embassy official, Trung Van Thong, had said that Khmer Kampuchea Krom, a region comprising much of present-day southern Vietnam, belonged to Vietnam even before it was officially ceded to it by France in 1949.
At one point during the demonstration, prominent monk and protester Seung Hai burned a Vietnamese flag, which was then stomped and spat upon, according to a report by the Cambodia Daily.
Embassy diplomats had refused to take a petition from the protesters, the report said.
Long Visalo, a secretary of state at Cambodia's Foreign Affairs Ministry, called the dispute over the provinces “a minor issue” while receiving a petition from the group on Tuesday.
“[Our nations] can talk, why stage this demonstration?” he asked.
“I have nothing to do this. It is not related to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. They wrote to the Vietnamese Embassy, let the Vietnamese Embassy deal with it. It is [Vietnam’s] issue, not mine.”
Speaking at a press conference after the protest, Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that those who burned the flag would be punished.
“It is a group of anarchists … we have not decided how to punish them yet but we will wait and see,” the Daily reported.
Tuesday’s flag burning incident follows a statement last week by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who expressed the hope that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) would refrain from whipping up anti-Vietnam sentiment for political gain.
CNRP lawmakers had recently rejoined parliament after breaking a political deadlock with Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) following disputed elections in July last year.
The CNRP has accused Hun Sen of being a "puppet" of neighboring Vietnam. Many Cambodians are wary of Vietnam’s influence over their country’s affairs.
An estimated 1.7 million people, or one in four Cambodians, died in what came to be called the “Killing Fields” after the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The regime was unseated when Vietnam invaded the country four years later.
Vietnam occupied the country for a decade before withdrawing its troops and signing the Paris Peace Agreement to restore sovereignty and stability to Cambodia.
“I hope that the CPP would not be accused of being a Vietnam puppet. If you regard me as a Vietnamese [puppet], it means that we are enemies,” Hun Sen said.
Sam Rainsy did not respond.
France’s Cochinchina colony, which included the former provinces of Kampuchea Krom, was officially ceded to Vietnam in 1949, but had been under Vietnamese control since the mid-17th century.
One of the most important seaports of Kampuchea Krom, once called Prey Nokor, is now known as Ho Chi Minh City—the financial hub of Vietnam and one of the largest cities in Southeast Asia.
Since Hanoi took control, the Khmer Krom living in Vietnam—believed to number considerably more than one million and who are ethnically similar to most Cambodians—have increasingly faced social persecution and strict religious controls, according to rights groups.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said the Khmer Krom face serious restrictions of freedom of expression, assembly, association, information, and movement in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government has banned Khmer Krom human rights publications and tightly controls the practice of Theravada Buddhism by the minority group, which sees the religion as a foundation of their distinct culture and ethnic identity.
On the other side of the border, the Khmer Krom who leave Vietnam for Cambodia remain one of the country’s “most disenfranchised groups,” Human Rights Watch said.
Because they are often perceived as Vietnamese by Cambodians, many Khmer Krom in Cambodia face social and economic discrimination.
They also face hurdles in legalizing their status in the country as authorities have failed to grant many Khmer Krom citizenship or residence rights despite promises to treat them as Cambodian citizens, according to Human Rights Watch.
Reported by Van Vichar for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.