Prak Chan Thul
Phnom Penh. Vietnam’s biggest commercial bank, Agribank, with assets of $26 billion, opened its first branch in neighboring Cambodia this week, illustrating the growing economic bonds between the neighbors.
The Cambodian government has consistently promoted ties with Vietnam while relations with Cambodia’s other main neighbor, Thailand, have been seriously strained by a decades-old border dispute.
But many Cambodians have traditionally been suspicious of their much bigger neighbor to the east and the booming Vietnamese investment in Cambodia is not without critics, some of whom say Vietnamese companies are taking land from Cambodians.
Le Bien Cuong, a commercial counsellor at the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh, said bilateral trade was up nearly 40 percent this year and could reach $2 billion. “We try to have partnership with Cambodia to supply goods for the people of Cambodia,” Le said.
Underscoring the improving ties with Vietnam, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni and his father, former king Norodom Sihanouk, who at times over his long career was hostile to Vietnam, this month paid a visit to the country.
Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An hailed ties with Cambodia’s “great friend” at this week’s bank launch, saying Cambodia would always welcome Vietnamese business.
The value of the bilateral trade between the countries rose 38.6 percent to $717.78 million in the first five months of this year, according to figures from the Vietnamese embassy.
Vietnam’s exports to Cambodia increased 37.3 percent to $598 million while Cambodian exports to Vietnam rose 45.2 percent to $119.74 million, according to the figures.
Vietnam’s investments in Cambodia are worth $600 million in areas such as electricity, agriculture, telecommunications, banking and health care, according to Le. He said there was no Cambodian investment in Vietnam.
But it is Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia’s rubber sector that is stirring controversy in a country where traditional suspicion of Vietnamese designs on Cambodian territory lingers.
About 11 Vietnamese companies said this year they had obtained separate land concessions totalling 100,000 hectares to grow rubber in Cambodia.
But rights groups and villagers have voiced concern about the concessions saying Cambodians were losing their land.
“Now everything is Vietnamese,” said 56-year old villager Dorn Sina, from one of the 1,000 families involved in a land dispute with a Vietnamese rubber company since 2005 in Kompong Thom province, 170 kilometers north of Phnom Penh.
Dorn Sina said she lived on a government relocation site after being evicted to make way for a Vietnamese investor. “How we suffer when we have to start with empty hands,” she said.
Pen Bonnar, coordinator of the Adhoc rights group in Ratanakkiri province, 600 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh, said villagers there were also in dispute over land for Vietnamese investors’ rubber plantations which they believed would bring little benefit in terms of jobs.
“Once the rubber trees grow bigger, they will need more Vietnamese workers,” Bonnar said.