This essay argues that to understand twentieth-century Khmer-Vietnamese ethnic antagonism, the contest for the lower Mekong Delta (in today's Vietnam) since the mid-eighteenth century has been key. It argues, however, that while this pre-1945 background can explain antagonism, it cannot sufficiently explain the violence between Khmer and Vietnamese that occurred after 1945. For that, the First Indochina War (1945–54) and decolonization marked a turning point. This period saw the creation of a dynamic of violence between Khmer and Vietnamese that hardened ethnic antagonisms, shaped the character of the war, and affected arguments over sovereignty. This dynamic of violence also contributed, in the long run, to a common Cambodian antagonism to the Vietnamese, including that of the Khmer Rouge.

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