Enmity has existed between the Khmer and the Vietnamese for centuries, but this antagonism did not hinder the growth of a sizable Vietnamese community scattered throughout southeastern and central Cambodia. According to an American scholar on Southeast Asia, Donald J. Steinberg, an estimated 291,596 Vietnamese, constituting more than 7 percent at the total population, resided in Cambodia in 1950. They were concentrated in Phnom Penh, end in Kandal, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham provinces.
The Khmer have shown more antipathy toward the Vietnamese than toward the Chinese or toward their other neighbors, the Thai. Several factors explain this attitude. The expansion of Vietnamese power has resulted historically in the loss of Khmer territory. The Khmer, in contrast, have lost no territory to the Chinese and little to the Thai. No close cultural or religious ties exist between Cambodia and Vietnam. The Vietnamese fall within the Chinese culture sphere, rather than within the Indian, where the Thai and the Khmer belong. The Vietnamese differ from the Khmer in mode of dress, in kinship organization, and in many other ways--for example the Vietnamese are Mahayana Buddhists. Although Vietnamese lived in urban centers such as Phnom Penh, a substantial number lived along the lower Mekong and Basak rivers as well as on the shores of the Tonle Sap, where they engaged in fishing. Much of the manpower on French-owned rubber plantations was provided by the Vietnamese, who also were employed by the French as lower level civil servants and as white collar workers in private businesses.
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