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«Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016) While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist ...»

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Whether these Thai statements were instrumental or sincere, Cambodian officials moved to block the demonstrations. By the eve of the event, Abhisit and Suthep expressed confidence that the protest would not affect overall bilateral ties, 111 and Suthep later thanked his Cambodian counterparts publicly for preventing the rally. 112 The CPP also stopped the anti-Thai protests to prevent opposition groups from using them as springboards for broader demonstrations. The organizer of the July 2010 protests was Rong Chhun of the Cambodia Watchdog Council—a Norway-based organization representing trade unions and affiliated civil society groups, with connections to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). A high-level Cambodian official reportedly met with organizers before the protests were banned, warning them not to use the Day of Anger as an opposition-party platform. 113 Although the opposition continued to criticize the government for failing to win undisputed sovereignty over Preah Vihear, the CPP leadership was much more secure than it had been in 2003, having won the 2008 elections by a landslide. Cambodian officials saw little need for public protests over Preah Vihear, as the temple issue was already salient and the public was strongly behind the government. 114 Protests also offered Cambodia little potential leverage against Thailand, because Thai officials had made clear that they believed Cambodia could control them easily. Yet grassroots protests carried significant risks of provoking Thai escalation and domestic unrest. The government thus had strong incentives to subdue them and could do so at an acceptable cost given the CPP’s strong domestic control and the relative normalcy of such repression in Cambodia.

“PM: Unworried.” “Govt praises Phnom Penh for stopping Day of Anger,” Bangkok Post, 16 July 2010.

“Plan to Hold an ‘Anger Day’ Against Thai Invasion,” KI-Media, 29 June 2010.

Interview with Son Soubert, 25 July 2011, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A NEW THREAT: ANTI-VIETNAMESE PROTESTS IN 2013 AND 2014 A more challenging set of nationalist protests arose in Cambodia in 2013, this time focused on Vietnam, which Cambodian nationalists have long accused of encroaching on Cambodian territory and sovereignty. That sentiment resurfaced as part of larger demonstrations led by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) after the controversial July 2013 national elections. The protests focused largely on domestic grievances—such as allegations of CPP election-rigging, corruption, and environmental and human rights abuses—but also featured prominent anti-Vietnamese themes.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy had long stirred nationalist ire toward Vietnam, calling CPP leaders “yuon (Vietnamese) puppets” to criticize their close historical ties to Hanoi, 115 threatening to expel Vietnamese immigrants, pressing for a harder line on border demarcation talks, accusing Vietnam of trying “to swallow our land,” 116 and uprooting border demarcation posts in protest. 117 In July 2013, he returned to the border area and accused the CPP of “protect[ing] the invading Yuons.” 118 Post-election protests soon included anti-Vietnamese slogans against “yuon animals” or “yuon dogs.” 119 Unlike the small protests that the CPP dispersed in 2009 and 2010, these anti-Vietnamese protests were embedded in large rallies that enjoyed significant domestic and international backing and featured demands for human rights, See, e.g., Stew Magnuson and Kay Kimsong, “On Campaign Trail, Sam Rainsy Pledges to Oust Vietnamese,” Cambodia Daily, 21 July 1998. Some consider the term yuon derogatory.

Sok Hemara, “Sam Rainsy Rails Against Loss of Land in US Talk,” VOA Khmer, 3 June 2010.

Meas Sokchea, “VN Slams Sam Rainsy for Border Post Stunt,” Phnom Penh Post, 4 November 2009.

May Titthara, “At border, Rainsy plays old tune,” Phnom Penh Post, 26 July 2013.

“Cambodia protests unmask anti-Vietnam views,” Al-Jazeera, 24 January 2014.

democracy, and the ouster of the Hun Sen government. In this context, subduing anti-Vietnamese protests would have been costly, playing into opposition criticisms that the government is antidemocratic and unduly beholden to Hanoi. The CPP allowed protests to continue for an extended period—reflecting Hun Sen’s weaker political position and the country’s shift back toward more competitive electoral authoritarian rule.

In January 2014, the CPP changed tack after protesters and sympathetic garment workers clashed with police outside Phnom Penh, looting and destroying a number of Vietnamese businesses in the process. Those attacks triggered the most significant use of force by the government since the protests began months before. Police opened fire, killing five protesters and injuring or arresting many others. 120 In February, demonstrators reportedly shouted “yuon” before killing a Vietnamese-Cambodian man. CPP officials promptly criticized the opposition for inciting “racism” and responded to Vietnamese demands for an investigation by pledging to investigate and prosecute the offenders. 121 A subsequent exchange of head-of-state visits and trade and investment talks showed that CPP actions successfully avoided a rupture with Vietnam. 122 In July 2014, new protests erupted after a Vietnamese official made controversial remarks about Vietnam’s historical ownership of Kampuchea Krom—an area around the Mekong Delta once within the Khmer Empire. More than 100 Buddhist monks and other Peter Maguire, “Cambodia’s People Power,” The Diplomat, 20 January 2014.

“Cambodia Vows to Bring Perpetrators of ‘Racist’ Killing to Justice,” Radio Free Asia, 20 February 2014.

Indeed, the episode likely reinforced ties between the Hun Sen government and Vietnamese leadership.

Murray Hiebert and Phuong Nguyen, “Cambodian Regime Realigns Its Foreign Relations,” YaleGlobal Online, 18 February 2014.

demonstrators gathered by the Vietnamese Embassy, demanding an apology before police used batons to disperse them. 123 Thousands of demonstrators rallied again in August, burning Vietnamese flags, and Cambodia initially rebuffed Vietnamese demands to stop them. A Ministry of Interior spokesman said, “Cambodia is different than Vietnam,” emphasizing that Cambodia “adheres to…democracy” and “allows freedom of expression” and that the protests would not affect government policy. 124 However, Cambodia reversed course days later, ordering a halt to protests and expressing “regret” for the acts of “extremists” after Vietnam’s Prime Minister called on Phnom Penh to act 125—a clear indication that he believed Cambodia was capable of repressing the protests.

Smaller demonstrations resurfaced in October, with some protesters threatening to burn the Vietnamese embassy, 126 but a Cambodian government spokesman insisted: “We are resolved not to let a small group of extremists…incite divisive relations between the two nations.” 127 Authorities sent riot police to control further demonstrations and arrested three participating monks in November, instilling fear in others and quelling the protests. 128 Again, no serious rift occurred between Phnom Penh and Hanoi.

“Khmer Krom monks clash with Cambodian police over Hanoi statement,” Radio Free Asia, 7 July 2014.

“Cambodia defends flag burning protest as “freedom of expression,” Radio Free Asia, 15 August 2014.

“Cambodia Orders Halt to Anti-Vietnamese Protests After Flag-Burning Incident,” Radio Free Asia, 19 August 2014.

Mech Dara, “Demonstrators Threated to Burn Vietnamese Embassy,” Cambodia Daily, 6 October 2014.

“Cambodia stands firm in relations with Vietnam,” Radio Voice of Vietnam, 24 October 2014.

See, e.g., “After Arrests, Fear Permeates Outcast Pagoda,” Cambodia Daily, 14 November 2014.

The Cambodian case shows that electoral authoritarian regimes sometimes have incentives to foment or allow nationalist protests to rally public support or demonstrate democratic credentials. However, it also shows that such protests can get out of hand and descend into anti-foreign violence. When protests have jeopardized Cambodia’s relations with its larger neighbors, the authorities have ultimately shown the willingness and capacity to repress protests rather than acceding to demonstrators’ demands, which helps explain why neither Thailand nor Vietnam has viewed the Cambodian protests as imposing credible foreign policy constraints or offered meaningful diplomatic concessions.


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Rising tensions over conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea have been accompanied by popular efforts in Vietnam and the Philippines to oppose Chinese “aggression”.

Although both Vietnam and the Philippines have witnessed nationalist protests against China, these two cases illustrate that the impact of nationalist protests on foreign relations can be muted despite the very different political regimes in which they arise.

Nationalist protests in autocratic Vietnam have posed a relatively high latent risk to regime stability, but their impact has been circumscribed by the government’s willingness and ability to repress them. 129 The Vietnamese government swiftly subdued anti-China protests in 2007, and although it was more lenient in permitting small-scale anti-China protests in the Public protests in general—often related to domestic land disputes—are rare in Vietnam and almost always swiftly repressed. See, e.g., “Vietnam land clash: Arrests after police evict hundreds,” BBC, 25 April 2012;

“Vietnam Tightens Land Seizure Law after Farmers Protest,” Bloomberg, 9 December 2013.

summer of 2011, the window of opportunity was forcefully shut once the two governments reached a diplomatic understanding about the importance of “guiding public opinion.” AntiChinese protests in 2012 and 2013 were quickly and effectively curtailed. In 2014, as China pressed its maritime claims more assertively, Vietnam allowed the largest anti-China protests to date but swiftly repressed them after demonstrations descended into violent riots, stemming the damage to Sino-Vietnamese relations. Although Chinese and Vietnamese vessels continued to face off in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese government carefully sought to avoid actions that might justify a Chinese military response.

Nationalist protests in the democratic Philippines also have not significantly constrained the government’s foreign policy, but for different reasons. In the Philippines, public protests are common, and unless they are exceedingly large, they do not raise significant risks of regime instability. 130 Anti-China demonstrations have been relatively small and organized by groups affiliated with the incumbent leadership, posing little political threat or constraint on the government’s foreign policy. Rather than pushing the government to take a harsher stance against China, anti-China protests in 2011, 2012, and 2013 are better seen as supportive of the Aquino administration’s already tough position against China.

Small, usually peaceful protests occur regularly on issues such as the U.S. military presence, official corruption, and economic hardship. See, e.g., “‘Pork-barrel’ politics spark protests in Philippines,” BBC News, 27 August 2013; “Anti-Obama protesters clash with police,” Associated Press, 26 February 2014; “‘Yolanda’ survivors hold protest, demand more assistance,” Philippine Inquirer, 9 January 2014.

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