Cambodia on Friday defended a group of demonstrators who burned a flag of Vietnam in front of Hanoi’s embassy, saying the act was part of freedom of expression allowed in the country, rebuffing demands from the neighbor that they be punished.
Cambodian Ministry of Interior Spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that the flag burning during a protest by the Khmer Krom ethnic minority would not affect relations between the two countries.
The demonstrators were simply “expressing their opinions in a democratic country,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Protesters commonly burn flags around the world—it may be unethical, but as long as it is done during a lawful protest, it is acceptable,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak reminded Hanoi that protesters in Vietnam had frequently burned Chinese flags in demonstrations following Beijing’s deployment in May of an oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast in the South China Sea.
Protests are extremely rare in Vietnam and are often brutally repressed by the authorities, as dissent is not tolerated in the one-party communist state.
Khieu Sopheak explained that the political systems of Cambodia and Vietnam are “different” and that Hanoi could not expect Phnom Penh to react the same way to protests by its citizens.
“Cambodia is different from Vietnam. Cambodia adheres to a form of liberal democracy with a multi-party system. Cambodia allows freedom of expression under the framework of the law,” he said.
“This incident does not represent or reflect the foreign policy of the Cambodian government and it does not affect Vietnamese-Cambodia relations. [The demonstrators] were simply expressing their opinions in a democratic country.”
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.
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.
Khieu Sopheak on Friday called the protests over Thong’s statement warranted, adding that Vietnam had overreacted to the flag burning incident.
“The demand [of the protesters] was appropriate and [Le Hai Binh’s] comment [appears] to be his own personal point of view,” he told RFA.
“We respect the good relationship between the two friendly countries.”
The demand for an apology from Vietnam over Thong’s statement has also been taken up by opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy.
“If the Vietnamese Embassy does not apologize, the Cambodian people should use their fingerprints to file a petition to oust [Thong] from his post and force him out of Cambodia,” Sam Rainsy said Friday.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed the hope that the 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.
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 U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.