Kampuchea Krom: A historical mistake

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French Indochina. nationalmuseum.af.mil/U.S. Air Force photo

On June 4, Cambodians will once again mark the anniversary of the loss, according to them in 1949, of former 21 Cambodian provinces for the benefit of Vietnam. These provinces are what it is called by the Khmers as Kampuchea Krom.

The feeling remains alive among many Cambodians that the loss of this territory is the result of an injustice. This feeling is reinforced by two elements. The first element is the presence today of a significant Khmer ethnic minority in the Mekong Delta and the existence of Khmer pagodas served by many Buddhist monks. The second element is supposed to be legal: it is said that Kampuchea Krom was Khmer land when France colonized Cochin China; according to this perception, when France recognized a Vietnamese state within the framework of the French Union in 1949, it had first to restore Kampuchea Krom to Cambodia.

The existence of a strong Khmer ethnic minority in southern Vietnam is undeniable and is indeed attested by the vitality of pagoda life. One can only regret that the Vietnamese authorities do not grant this minority the rights that are its own under the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1992. Article 1 of this Declaration stipulates that States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity. And Article 2 of this Declaration proclaims that persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination. Without the question of citizenship being altered and without in any way affecting the sovereignty of Vietnam on its territory, a proper implementation of these provisions would greatly help to alleviate the Khmer frustrations on both sides of the border.

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With regard to the second element, it is time for Cambodians to accept the historical realities of the past and their legal consequences. The historical truth is that the 21 provinces had already ceased to be under the authority of the Cambodian crown when the French seized the territories of Cochin China. The city of Saigon was no more called Prey Nokor since 1698.

In 1845, Cambodia was terribly weakened by decades of internal divisions. It had lost his full sovereignty. It has to support the double suzerainty of Annam and Siam. As he requested, at that time, to be recognized as the King of Cambodia, Prince Ang Duong was obliged to grant Siam the three provinces of (today) Sisophon, Battambang and Siem Reap and to grant Annam Kampuchea Krom. An agreement was signed in December 1845. This is the cruel historical reality. And when, later, he denounced the 1845 agreement, the King of Cambodia suffered a military defeat. The sanction of arms put an end to the rights of Cambodia on the Mekong delta. The acquisition of territory by military action, which has, in principle, been prohibited since the adoption of the United Nations Charter and various UN resolutions, was still a customary legal practice in the nineteenth century. And there is no retroactive effect in international law. Those who invoke international instruments adopted after 1845 simply show their lack of education and skill.

On 8 June 1949, the French government, in a letter to the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, recalled the historical truth:

“Your Majesty is aware that Cochin-China has been ceded by Annam to France under the treaties of 1862 and 1874. (…) It is therefore from the Court of Hue that France has received all of South Vietnam, its rights sanctioning military operations against Annamese mandarins and not against the Khmer authorities. (…) The story contradicts the thesis that the west of Cochin-China was still attached to the Khmer Crown at the moment of the French installation. It is allowed to recall, among other examples, that Hatien was placed as early as 1715, under the suzerainty of the Empire of Annam and that half a century before our arrival the canal connecting Hatien to Chaudoc was dug on the order of Annamese mandarins “.

In 1954, during the Geneva conference, in documents that brought the proofs, it was repeated that when France took over militarily Cochin China, it was against the army of Annam that it used to fight. Not against a Khmer army. When France signed the treaty of 1862 that granted it Cochin China, it was with the Court of Hue, not with that of Oudong. When it installed his colonial power on the Mekong Delta, it was Annamese officials whom France discovered. No Khmer civil servants. In 1949, France had no historical or legal reason to return to Cambodia a Cochin China that it took from Annam 87 years before.

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The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the French decision to recognize the 21 southern provinces as a part of Vietnam is therefore based on an historical mistake made by those who are still claiming rights on that region. Kampuchea Krom was lost in 1845, 174 years ago. For ever.

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