Updated at 10.50 a.m. ET on 2014-08-20
Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong on Tuesday ordered the country’s embattled Khmer Krom ethnic group to suspend protests against Vietnam over a territorial dispute as Phnom Penh expressed “regret” to Hanoi over the burning of a Vietnamese flag during the demonstrations last week.
Horn Nam Hong met at his office with the head of the Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Community, Thach Setha, who agreed to temporarily halt the protest outside the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh following the request from the minister.
“We issued a statement to halt the protests until the end of this month,” Thach Setha told RFA’s Khmer Service following Tuesday’s meeting, though he stressed that the demonstrations would continue next month if Hanoi doesn’t apologize over a statement it made on the historical ownership of Khmer Kampuchea Krom provinces.
The protests had flared after embassy official Trung Van Thong claimed 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, a statement disputed by the Khmer Krom community.
Thach Setha did not say why Hor Nam Hong, who is also Cambodia’s deputy prime minister, requested his group to halt the protests.
But the state media in Hanoi reported Tuesday that Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called on visiting President of the Cambodian Parliament Heng Samrin to ensure that Phnom Penh “take proper measures” to prevent acts such as the flag burning protest from occurring in the future.
“Heng Samrin said he feels regret about the demonstration against Vietnam, especially the burning of the national flag of the country, saying that these actions were done by a group of extremists who were incited by some elements with limited knowledge about the two countries’ history,” Vietnamnet reported, citing, among others, the official Vietnamese News Agency.
Hor Nam Hong said that the spat would not affect broader bilateral relations, according to Thach Setha.
He said Hor Nam Hong also vowed to work closely with an incoming Vietnamese ambassador, who Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry has said will arrive “soon,” though no specific date has been provided.
“[Hor Nam Hong] said he will continue working with the Yuon government, especially the new incoming Yuon ambassador [to Cambodia],” he said, using a term for Vietnamese in Cambodia which some consider derogatory.
Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Thach Du, who was born in Cambodia, will replace Ngo Anh Dung as the Vietnamese ambassador after Dung completes his five-year post, according to a report by Agence Khmer Presse.
Tensions between the two countries have been running high since the protests last week, in which some 600 Khmer Krom protesters who had gathered in front of the Vietnamese Embassy burned, then stomped and spat upon, the Vietnamese flag, according to a report by the Cambodia Daily.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said in a statement that the flag burning “ran counter to the fine traditional neighborliness between Vietnam and Cambodia and deliberately offended the feelings of the Vietnamese people,” according to the Vietnamese state media.
The statement called for Cambodia to “strictly try these extremists in accordance with the law and take effective measures to prevent similar actions from repeating in the future.”
Cambodian Ministry of Interior Spokesman Khieu Sopheak had earlier defended the demonstrators, saying the act was part of the freedom of expression allowed in the country, and rebuffing demands from Vietnam that they be punished.
Last week, Thach Setha had also led hundreds of monks and other supporters in petitioning foreign embassies in Phnom Penh asking that Heng Samrin extract an apology from Hanoi during his visit to Vietnam.
“Our petition requests that the President of Parliament bring up the issue with the [Vietnamese] government for faking history,” he said at the protest, which also appealed to the Cambodian people to boycott Vietnamese goods until Vietnam apologized.
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 So Chivy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Thach Setha as president of the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation.