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Cambodia’s diaspora crisis

Chan Kunthiny / Khmer Times Share:
Most of the Cambodian diaspora still fear the Khmer Rouge killing machine. Such a feeling of fear is hard to recede when many of them have never returned home. Reuters

Chan Kunthiny points out that the attitude of the currently hostile Cambodian diaspora can be turned around by better diplomacy, using lessons learned from Vietnam to bring overseas Vietnamese back home.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled the country during the Indochina War and the Cambodian diaspora, known in Khmer as “Anekachun Khmer” or “Khmer Anekachun”, have mainly settled in the US, France and Australia. According to official data, there are about 300,000 of them in the US, 80,000 in France, and 60,000 in Australia.

In all things considered, their political orientation is largely against, or even hostile to, the Cambodian government. It is not surprising as most of Cambodian diaspora left the country during the war and large numbers of them were deprived of education, bringing with them only trauma and deep emotional scars of family separation – and most of all, the fear of the Khmer Rouge killing machine “Angkar”.

Such a feeling of fear is hard to recede when many of them have never returned home. The imagined “persecution” still haunts them.

In this climate of fear, the propaganda machinery of the opposition proves to be effective in rhetorically feeding what the diaspora likes to hear. One recurring tale is that Cambodia is being invaded by Vietnam and the country is run by a Vietnamese puppet. Another one is that a punitive regime is running Cambodia.

The narratives, politically crafted and orchestrated by the opposition movement, have successfully convinced the Cambodian diaspora to travel back in time to the 1970s and 1980s and be stuck there in their thinking.

The strong protest by Australians of Cambodian descent is a case in point, and it signifies a wide gap in reconciling the Cambodian diaspora with the government of their country of origin.

The crisis now is that the diaspora, although they don’t have voting rights, is a major source of financial support to sustain the activities of the opposition movement. Usually they themselves act as vocal international advocates for change in Cambodia by criticising the legitimately elected government.

Although they claim that they only attack the government, their actions in fact have deeply affected Cambodia’s image on the international stage. For one, they have convinced foreign politicians, through intense advocacy efforts, to impose sanctions on their own country of birth.

This is similar to a Khmer saying that goes, “Khmoch Srok Oy Dai, Teub Khmoch Prey Vea Hean”, which means that, “Without domestic ghosts’ facilitation, foreign or external ghosts cannot interfere”.

The “reaching-out” efforts by the government to the Khmer Anekachun have yielded certain results but they are still far below expectation, taking into consideration the number of pro-government diaspora that have been brought to the fold.

Perhaps it is time that Cambodia introduce and implement a “diaspora diplomacy”, which includes not only “reaching-out” but also “pulling-in” the disenfranchised and the dissatisfied. For this to happen more people-to-people diplomatic efforts are needed.

For instance, in Scotland and Ireland, the government supported various programmes to assist the diaspora in conducting various activities linked to the development of their homeland. Those programmes include the “Fresh Talent Initiative”, “Relocation Advisory Service” and “Homecoming Programme”.

Ironically, one of the good examples that Cambodia could learn from is Vietnam, which the Cambodian diaspora often blames for their imagined miseries of Cambodia.

Vietnam has been relatively successful in reconnecting the 4 million-strong diaspora, or Viet Kieu, with their home country. Many first and second generation overseas Vietnamese have been returning back to live and work and the government has been carrying out a package of policies to bring home professional talent, scientists and businessmen. The Viet Kieu are seen as economic heroes by the local Vietnamese and this is measured by their contribution to the local economy.

The flagship policy from the government is Resolution 36 on overseas Vietnamese adopted by Vietnam’s Communist Party in March 2004. The resolution considers overseas Vietnamese as an inseparable part of the Vietnamese community and adopted open policies and measures to facilitate the return of the Viet Kieu for visiting their families, doing business and developing cooperation in science, technology and culture.

In carrying out Resolution 36, Vietnam in 2007 also gave visa exemptions for overseas Vietnamese. Last month, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc hosted a reception for a delegation of nearly 100 overseas Vietnamese returning home for the Lunar New Year (Tet) festival as part of the “Homeland Spring 2018” programme.

The Viet Kieu have also been tempted by a range of incentives, from tax breaks on importing cars to a relaxation on nationality and property ownership rules. Up to a million overseas Vietnamese are interested in resettling in Vietnam for retirement, according to Vietnam Investment Review.

It is high time for the Khmer Anekachun to learn from the Viet Kieu and to turn their nationalism into a constructive force for nation-building.

Meanwhile, the Cambodian government needs to readjust its strategy to redirect the activities of Khmer Anekachun’s into a positive force for peace, development and prosperity of Cambodia by, among other feasible measures, incorporating some of the strategies and lessons learned from Vietnam.

Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh.

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