Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a press release issued on Wednesday that these actions ran counter to the fine traditional neighborliness between Vietnam and Cambodia and deliberately offended the feelings of the Vietnamese people.

“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.

On August 12, about 600 Khmer Kampuchea Krom protesters gathered at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh to demand that Tran Van Thong, the first counselor of the embassy, retract his comments released in July this year regarding Vietnam’s legal sovereignty over its current southwestern part, The Cambodia Daily reported on Wednesday.

The demonstration proceeded peacefully until about 2:30 pm, when a Vietnamese flag was brought forward and Seung Hai, a monk who had been a prominent figure at the protest that ended on Wednesday, took the lead, the daily said.

As the flag was lit for a brief moment, two protesters – a monk and a layman – stepped forward and urged the protesters to remain true to their pledge of nonviolence, but Seung Hai continued to agitate, according to the newspaper.

Vietnamese media reported that the Cambodian government did not license the protest, adding that the southwestern part is now acknowledged as Vietnam’s legitimate territory by the entire international community.

Tuoi Tre News - August 14, 2014

Kampuchea Krom protests speak to larger fears

It started on Radio Free Asia’s morning political affairs program on June 6. A diplomat at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh denied that Cambodia’s historical claim over today’s Southern Vietnam had extended up to colonial France’s departure in June 1949.

“There is no basis for that, and no evidence—South Vietnam has belonged to Vietnam for a very long time,” said Tran Van Thong, the Vietnamese Embassy’s first counselor and spokesman, speaking in the Khmer language.

The remark sparked protests at the embassy two days later, with nationalists and Cambodians from the southern Mekong Delta region of today’s Vietnam calling on Mr. Thong to either prove his claims or issue a retraction and apology.

The racially charged protests sputtered along for two months until coming to a head this week with a public burning of Vietnam’s flag in front of the embassy, whose diplomats stubbornly refused to even take a petition from the protesters.

“This is not about the history of Kampuchea Krom, it’s about the history of Cambodia,” said Thach Setha, a protest organizer, using the Khmer-language designation for the Mekong Delta, which literally means “Lower Cambodia.”

“All of the Khmer Krom, the kings of Cambodia and the Cambodian government have never made an agreement, they never gave the land to Vietnam, and we always struggled to take Kampuchea Krom back until 1949,” Mr. Setha said Wednesday.

Mr. Setha, the executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community and a senior member of the opposition CNRP, said he recognized Vietnam’s present sovereignty over the territory but that its obfuscation of the transfer from Cambodian control was cruel.

Sovereign under the Khmer court for centuries, escalating immigration of ethnic Vietnamese to the delta had, by the 17th century, sparked an unending battle over the territory as the Vietnamese capitalized on a divided Cambodia.

“The arrival of the French, however, radically transformed the contest,” wrote Shawn McHale in his history of the dispute in the Journal of Asian Studies last year.

“The French declared Cochinchina a directly ruled colony, and the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty signed a treaty ceding this region to France. All Vietnamese sovereignty claims over the area were rendered null and void.”

The decision was criticized by the court of Cambodia, Mr. McHale noted, which argued that the Vietnamese leader had no right to cede sovereignty that was not theirs.

Yet with the arrival of the French, who soon took Cambodia under their multinational Indochina colony, Mr. McHale wrote, conflicts over the territory ebbed.

“Left unsettled until 1949 was the resolution of Cambodian sovereignty claims over parts of the lower Mekong Delta,” he wrote.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said there is little dispute over who today controls the former Kampuchea Krom provinces, which includes Ho Chi Minh City—a city whose population of 8 million is more than half of Cambodia’s.

But Mr. Rainsy said Mr. Thong’s comments had led to such emotional and often tense protests due to a collective national memory of Vietnamese abuse of Cambodia as the two nations struggled to assert their claims of sovereignty.

“When you deny historical facts, you hurt a lot of people because a lot of people have suffered from political persecution by the Vietnamese,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“It was very severe persecution when the Vietnamese took control of this part of Cambodia, and Cambodians resent Mr. Thong’s account of the transf... because the Vietnamese were the invaders, they took our land, they persecuted us, and then they claim this land has always been theirs.”

Official figures place the ethnic Khmer population in Vietnam at a bit more than 1 million today but activists claim a population almost 10 times the size exists. They also claim continued human rights abuses and policies of cultural assimilation, including the repression of Khmer language literacy.

Since his remarks, Mr. Thong, who could not be reached for comment for this article, has steadfastly maintained that he has no reason to apologize and that Cambodian sovereignty had been lost to Vietnamese administrators long before the French arrived.

Son Soubert, a former member of the Constitutional Council who comes from one of the country’s most prominent Khmer Krom families, said the issue of historical sovereignty over the delta is so vexed because of the mix of power in the area before colonialism.

“There were no Asian states, it was kingdoms, and the territory changed from one to another upon whether you were successful in warfare or not. It was the Europeans who introduced legal administrative borders and so on,” he said.

“Sometimes Cambodia was even invaded by the Vietnamese and controlled, and then there were outbursts of the population and they were forced back,” he continued.

“It was changing all the time and there was no definitive control of the borders. When they say it was under their control, in which way? Did they even have borders?”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the Cambodian government does not support the protests against the Vietnamese Embassy and suggested that both sides should study the disastrous history of provocations and recriminations between Cambodian and Vietnamese regimes during the 1960s and 1970s.

“The most important priority is good relations. We are not against any nation, and that group does not have a government position,” he said, referring to the nationalist demonstrators. “We wish that both sides would learn from history, the protesters as well as the spokesman.”

However, Kem Ley, a political analyst, said the protests were about more than a historical dispute.

“There are also concerns about Cambodian land in the present time, with the land concessions going to Vietnamese companies, most of which belong to the Vietnamese government, while all the plantation workers are Vietnamese,” Mr. Ley said.

“The history of Kampuchea Krom is a small part. We want to protect and maintain our land, that is the present issue.”

Mr. Setha, the protest organizer, said concerns about more incursions are indeed central to his cause and that he doubted that Mr. Thong would come around to his version of history.

“All along the border, they push into Cambodia, and so I don’t think he will apologize, because he wants to take the land from Cambodia more and more,” Mr. Setha said.

By Alex Willemyns - The Cambodia Daily - August 14, 2014

Khmer Krom protests conclude With another ultimatum

Nationalist protesters demanding an apology for controversial comments made by a Vietnamese diplomat regarding the annexing of Kampuchea Krom 65 years ago called off their demonstration on its third day Wednesday, promising to return to the streets if the embassy continues to ignore their demand.

Hundreds of monks and laymen —many brandishing Cambodian and Kampuchea Krom flags—had staked out the Vietnamese Embassy for three days over the comments of embassy spokesman Tran Van Thong in June.

On Tuesday, a monk, joined by a few protesters, burned a Vietnamese flag and pledged to burn 50 more, but the protest ended peacefully Wednesday with Thach Setha, executive director of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, calling for the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam to work together to resolve the dispute.

“We will let our government work with the yuon government for between one and two weeks,” Mr. Setha said, using an often-pejorative term for Vietnamese. “If there is no solution, we will protest again and we will not pull back.”

In July, Mr. Setha, a member of the opposition CNRP’s standing committee, also led a three-day protest at the Vietnamese Embassy and gave the government two weeks to find a solution.

A petition signed by 13 youth groups to urge foreign governments to pressure Vietnam into an apology was accepted by the embassies of numerous countries over the two three-day protests.

Seung Hai, the monk who led the burning of the flag on Tuesday, said at the embassy Wednesday morning that he would “burn 50 more at 3 p.m.” However, by lunchtime, he had disappeared from the scene.

“When he burned the flag he was not afraid but then he heard he would be arrested and went to a safe place,” said Thach Ha Sam Ang, acting chief monk at Phnom Penh’s Wat Sammaki Raingsey.

At about 8 a.m., a skirmish broke out at the protest site when some monks singled out a man and yelled “yuon spy, yuon spy,” sending a group of angry protesters to chase him down.

The man, who monks claimed had been following Seung Hai, was bundled onto a motorbike and taken away unscathed.

Police could not be reached to confirm whether Seung Hai was wanted for arrest. City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he could not confirm the claims.

By Mech Dara & Matt Blomberg - The Cambodia Daily - AUgust 14, 2014