Cambodia: Border Agreement Sparks Tensions


Milton Osborne

Hun Sen's decision to sign a land border agreement with Vietnam on 10 October has led to strong criticism of his actions within Cambodia and to one of the sharpest public clashes ever seen between the Prime Minister and the former king, now King Father Norodom Sihanouk. Reacting to Sihanouk's criticism of his actions and the suggestion from other members of the royal family that King Sihamoni should not ratify the border agreement with his signature, Hun Sen said, 'If this time around it is difficult to sign it, we should consider whether we should keep the monarchy or change to a republic with a president'. Sihanouk, meanwhile and in reaction to this latest clash, has said that he is now in permanent exile in Beijing.

Separately, the UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, and foreign NGOs have criticized the government's move to imprison without trial domestic critics of the decision to sign the agreement.

Cambodia's borders, the past history of their negotiation and the issue of their exact location, have long been matters for emotional debate within Cambodia, a fact reflecting the progressive loss of Cambodian territory to both the Thais and the Vietnamese over many centuries. Unrealistic claims to 'Kampuchea Krom' (Lower Cambodia) comprising most of the Mekong Delta region, were not just part of the irrational Pol Pot regime's rhetoric, but have been an issue frequently raised by more mainstream Cambodian politicians.

The contemporary controversy has several elements to it, including highly technical issues of international law, and it does not lend itself to easy summary. Nevertheless, it is possible to make the following points. It appears that the Cambodian government in signing the agreement is accepting a delineation of the border as a supplement to the agreement previously made by its predecessor, the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) and Vietnam in 1985. Whether that 1985 agreement remains valid is a matter of constitutional debate. At the same time there is controversy over the scale used in the maps as a basis for this latest agreement. As with many border controversies elsewhere in the world, a difference in the scale of a map can lead to changes of delineation. Short of tracing the border on the ground, it is difficult to know whether Hun Sen is right is saying that Cambodia has not lost territory to Vietnam and that it has, in fact, benefited by a change to the provisions covering the delineation along water courses.

Probably most importantly, the issue of the border agreement has provided a clear indication that Hun Sen, having made up his mind to go ahead with its signing, was quite prepared to risk a confrontation with Sihanouk, to place Sihamoni in a difficult position, and to take action against domestic critics without clear legal grounds for doing so. All of this reflects his currently unchallengeable position at a time when FUNCINPEC has become little more than a sub-set of the CPP and the Sam Rainsy Party is effectively neutered. At a time when there has been a modest improvement in the country's economic position, Hun Sen is clearly feeling that he has little to fear from his critics.

In a decision further bolstering Hun Sen's dominance within Cambodia, Sam Rainsy was convicted of criminal defamation against both Hun Sen and Ranariddh in a one-day trial held in Phnom Penh on 23 December. The charges related to Sam Rainsy's claim that Hun Sen was behind the March 1997 grenade attack on Sam Rainsy and his followers, and to his allegation that Ranariddh had allied himself with Hun Sen's CPP as the result of a substantial cash payment. Sam Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile in France, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months imprisonment.

Slow progress continues to be made in relation to the establishment of a Khmer Rouge Tribunal, with funds for its establishment still being insufficient. It is, at very least, doubtful that the Cambodian government is much concerned by continuing delay, a position likely to be shared by the Chinese government.

WATCHPOINT: The emergence of any issue that is likely to trouble Hun Sen's current political dominance. For the moment none is in sight.


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