The Cambodia–Vietnam Friendship Monument stands in a normally peaceful park near the center of Phnom Penh. But that peace has been shattered on a number of occasions, by political activists who see the monument more as a memorial to the Vietnamese occupation.
On December 25, 1978, Vietnam invaded the state of Democratic Kampuchea in present-day Cambodia. Its ultimately successful goal was the removal of the Khmer Rouge government from power, but the invasion also led to a 10-year occupation of the country.
In 1979, the occupying Vietnamese built a large concrete monument in Botum Park, not far from the Royal Palace in the heart of Phnom Penh. Built in the distinctly communist socialist-realist style, it features two soldiers standing side-by-side, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian, with a Cambodian woman holding a baby as she stands under their protective gaze. Behind them rises the concrete tower, its top decorated with gold.
On a typical day in Botum Park, this monument is the backdrop for family gatherings, friendly games of soccer, enthusiastic aerobics sessions, and occasional concerts. But in the last 20 or so years, the monument has also attracted the wrath of activists and protesters. They see the statue as a gross oversimplification of the former alliance between Vietnam and Cambodia, and a representation of the overly-close ties between Cambodian political leaders and Hanoi.
The first major attack on the monument came in 1998, when opposition protesters attacked the statue with hammers before climbing it, dousing it with petrol and setting it alight. It was repaired two months later.
Then, on July 29, 2007, a 10-kilogram bomb detonated at the base of the monument. The park was evacuated and two more devices were defused. Despite the blast, no one was injured and the monument suffered little damage.
In 2015, a newly formed Cambodian think tank controversially argued for the removal of the monument and others like it. These statues were problematic, they argued, as they didn’t represent an accurate depiction of the civil war period, and were nothing more than “occupation memorials that continue to divide Cambodia.”
The open letter from the think tank stated that more inclusive memorials should be erected in place of the existing monuments. These would ideally go far beyond the oversimplified Cambodia–Vietnam Friendship Monument and its like, recognizing the full extent of the decades-long war while addressing the “geopolitical power struggles, instigated by the US, the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Britain and France” that also played a role.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the debate gained little traction and the old monuments still stand. So for now, at least, the Cambodia–Vietnam Friendship Monument remains a focal point of Botum Park, where locals practice their afternoon exercises and friendly games of sepak takraw.