Vietnam’s Chinese flee unrest to Cambodia

Anti-Chinese riots erupted after China provocatively placed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam.

Cambodian authorities have welcomed Chinese fleeing mob violence in Vietnam [Luc Forsyth/Al Jazeera]

Bavet, Cambodia – Chen Qun squinted into the morning sunlight as she walked out of the customs and immigration office in Bavet, a small border town that serves as one of the main gateways for land travel between Cambodia and Vietnam.

“I have no friends in Sviey Rieng so I will stay in a hotel, maybe for four days,” Chen, 25, told Al Jazeera. She is one of thousands of ethnic Chinese who have fled the recent violence in Vietnam since Wednesday.

Sparked by China’s aggressive deployment of a $1bn oil rig roughly 110kms inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, mob violence has led to an estimated 21 killings after crowds began targeting and looting foreign-owned businesses and factories south of Hanoi last week. 

According to a statement from the Vietnamese government, the rioters believed they were targeting Chinese-run facilities, but also mistakenly attacked several Taiwanese and South Korean businesses.

Starting at 4am on Wednesday, Cambodian customs officer Lieutenant Prak Vibol Chey, 51, observed unusually large numbers of people massing on the Vietnamese side of the border, most of whom turned out to be ethnic Chinese. “We didn’t know what was happening. Some of them were walking and didn’t have any transportation,” recalled Chey. 

I don't know if they were nervous in Vietnam, but once they arrived in Cambodia, they seemed very relaxed.

by - Lieutenant Prak Vibol Chey

According to the Department of Immigration’s computerised records, more than 700 Chinese passport holders crossed into Cambodia on tourist visas over the course of the day.

Though Chey noted that “anyone with the appropriate documents is welcome in Cambodia”, the Chinese people who have crossed the border at Bavet are mostly skilled factory workers – a departure from the normal tourist demographic. “Normally they come with tour guides, but not this time,” Chey said. 

Many of the Chinese travellers appeared nervous as they waited for their passports to be stamped, shying away from photographers.

One man – who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of further harassment – became flustered when asked by Al Jazeera about the circumstances of his exit from Vietnam, saying only that his trip to Cambodia was not a vacation, and that the situation was “very bad”.

But Chen painted a different picture of the events, stating the Vietnamese had always been “very kind to me, and helped me a lot”. According to Chen, the majority of looters are young ruffians, while the general population has not shown any aggression towards Vietnams Chinese.

Strained relations

At a press conference in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying berated the government in Hanoi over the riots, stating they were “directly related to the Vietnamese government’s indulgence and connivance towards domestic anti-China forces and criminals”.

Anti-China riots turn deadly in Vietnam

The Vietnam People’s Public Security Forces – the national police under the direct control of the Communist Party – have acted swiftly against the violence, arresting some 1,400 protesters since the turmoil began. While the stream of ethnic Chinese crossing into Cambodia has slowed considerably since Vietnamese police seemingly regained control of the situation, an anti-Chinese protest planned for Sunday could cause more to flee.

Relations between the two countries are now the worst they have been since 1979, when a short, bloody war led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people on both sides.

According to the Vietnamese foreign ministry, the placement of China’s oil rig violates the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and is illegal under international law. The feuding neighbours have been engaged in small-scale naval skirmishes, deploying ship-to-ship water cannons and ramming each other hundreds of times since the conflict began earlier this month.

While Hanoi has openly condemned China’s actions, the outbreak of violence against foreign-owned businesses risks a potential investment backlash in Vietnam – a country with an economy highly dependent on manufacturing for the international market. Li & Fung Limited, the world’s largest supplier of toys and clothes for corporate giants such as Wal-Mart, closed most of its factories in Vietnam. At a shareholder meeting in Hong Kong earlier in the week, CEO Bruce Rockowitz said they were expecting at least a week’s delay in production.

Eager to please

The border crossing at Bavet appeared to be operating as usual on Friday, yet more than 200 people holding Chinese passports had crossed before midday. Under orders from their superiors, Cambodian immigration officers were exceptionally polite to the arriving Chinese visitors, smiling broadly as they took digital fingerprints – an act likely aimed at currying favour with China, Cambodia’s biggest investor. 

While the US has threatened to cut foreign aid to Cambodia over a series of human rights abuse allegations, China’s donations to Cambodia remain the largest sent by any nation. “Last time the US cut our aid, they were going to give us 100 old trucks. The Chinese saw this and gave us 257 trucks,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was quoted as saying in a speech during last year’s election campaign.

China has invested more than $9bn in Cambodia since 1994, and plans for an $11bn iron mining and railway project were announced late last year – meaning the government of Cambodia would have a great deal to lose if relations with China were to deteriorate.

Foreign journalists were given special permission to photograph inside the customs office, and even allowed access to the Department of Immigration’s computer records. This was almost certainly an attempt to win plaudits from Beijing by portraying itself as a safehaven for China’s fleeing citizens.

“I don’t know if they were nervous in Vietnam,” said Lieutenant Chey of the Chinese crossing the border, “but once they arrived in Cambodia, they seemed very relaxed.”

Source: Al Jazeera