DOUNG, Svay Rieng - This isolated outpost on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border is a
prime example of festering territorial confusion. No-one is sure of just where the
official border lies, or where it ought to, and no-one really knows what to do about
Khmer and Vietnamese farmers, hungry for land, vie for disputed soil. The Khmers
complain of the historic - and, they say, the continuing - "theft" of Cambodian
There are no border markers here - there was no agreement on where to put them -
but for years there has been a rough "no man's land" stretching about 1,000m
between the Cambodian and Vietnamese border checkpoints.
Now, Vietnam has staked claim to most of that land.
As the last rainy season ended, Vietnamese authorities told Khmer farmers on the
no-man's land to hurry and clear their harvest - and not to return.
Virtually as soon as they went, Vietnamese farmers moved in to plant potatoes.
On Dec 30, a Vietnamese truck arrived and workman began digging a bunker for a new
Vietnamese checkpoint some 120 meters from the Cambodian one.
Presuming that the border, at least unofficially, should lie in the middle of the
1000m no-man's land (and the Vietnamese don't accept that), Cambodia lost 380m of
Khmer villagers and monks from a nearby pagoda gathered and entreated the Vietnamese
to go back. An uneasy stalemate has developed; the Vietnamese are manning the new
checkpoint but have built no more than a tarpaulin over the bunker.
Talks between local authorities from both sides produced no more than an agreement
to disagree, while the Cambodians claim the Vietnamese have called in special forces
soldiers to reinforce their border officers.
This is Vietnam's "invasion" of Cambodia, as First Prime Minister Norodom
Ranariddh puts it, mirrored by claimed recent encroachments in Takeo, Prey Veng and
It's an age-old story. Memories of Cambodia's loss of land to Vietnam over centuries
are revived by modern-day disputes over the use of neutral ground and the alleged
blatant moving of border markers.
Encroachments are claimed to have occurred in recent years on Cambodia's border with
Thailand as well, but it is the eastern border with Vietnam which attracts the most
The government has previously said that some 1200 square km of border land in Takeo,
Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Kompong Cham and Kampot is in dispute. Villagers in Ratanakiri
and Mondulkiri have also complained of losing land.
In a report to the co-Prime Ministers in 1994, Kompong Cham governor Hun Neng said
at least 870 hectares had been lost to Vietnam in previous months in two districts
During the earlier UN peace-keeping mission, officials gathered evidence of Vietnamese
encroachments in several key areas - up to 2.5km into Cambodian territory in parts
of Svay Rieng and several hundred meters in Takeo - which are now again in the spotlight.
At Doung village, a small trading post about 50km from Svay Rieng town and bordering
Vietnam's Tay Ninh province, local officials say about 150 hectares of land is currently
Former monk Cheat Phy, 65, has lived here most of his life. He remembers the first
time he was forced to leave, by the French colonialists fighting the Khmer Issarak
and Viet Minh independence movements.
He and his family returned, until they were made to leave during the Khmer Rouge
years, and then came back again. Pressed for land, they and other villagers grew
crops on the neutral ground between the two countries.
Phy is adamant the land - and more - is Cambodia's.
"This goes back to the 1800s. Khmers used to cultivate land right up to the
river," he says, pointing several kilometers into Vietnam. "Now, we are
running out of land."
Khmers cite the remains of ancient Wat Doung, near where the Cambodian border checkpoint
is now. According to Ok Hann, deputy chief of Romeas Hek district, the Vietnamese
claim the wat marks the border.
"According to the map they used, the border was supposed to come across the
temple. Normally, Khmers would have built a wat inside Khmer territory, so we could
not agree to this."
Hann says there are no border stones for at least 4-5km in the area, after past negotiations
to mark the boundary failed.
Tensions grew in recent years, when the Vietnamese demanded taxes from Khmer farmers
using the no-man's land. Work on an irrigation well, apparently within 500m of the
Cambodian checkpoint, was abandoned in the face of Vietnamese objections.
The Vietnamese extended a road virtually up to the Cambodian checkpoint, ostensibly
to help cross-border trade, and then asked Khmer farmers to apply for permission
to use the land. Some refused and were arrested (later freed by negotiation) but
officials say they know of no violent clashes.
Hann openly acknowledges he doesn't know where the real border should be but says
that, according to elderly villagers, "that land is Khmer."
"Now it seems that the local people on both sides are waiting for instructions
from their top leaders.
"The [Khmer] villagers urge the government to clearly study the map and define
the border line to stop this confusion."
Whether there is political willpower on the part of either country to do just that
is far from certain.
Last January, during a visit by Ranariddh to Hanoi, Vietnam and Cambodia agreed to
establish a joint "Expert Working Group" to "to discuss and settle
the issue of demarcation".
A year later, the group has never met, according to Cambodian and Vietnamese officials.
The Hanoi agreement - which Ranariddh alleges was broken by recent events such as
at Doung - was that the "present management" of the border would not be
changed until there was a final settlement.
It may or may not constitute an "invasion" but it could be seen as a gradual
"creep" into Cambodian territory that echoes thousands of years of history.
After throwing off the Chinese yoke in the 10th Century, the Vietnamese began what
they call the Nham Tien (Southward Push). Over centuries, Vietnam absorbed the ancient
Kingdom of Champa as well as former Cambodian land now called Kampuchea Krom.
"The Vietnamese are extremely well aware of their Nham Tien to look for rice
lands," says one foreign academic in Phnom Penh who has studied Vietnamese expansionism.
"In a way you could look at what's happening now as a continuation of this demographic
push that is thousands of years old.
"It's just a demographic reality that when you have 85 million people in Vietnam,
you need more land."
Noting that hill tribes people in the Vietnam highlands have in recent years been
displaced by farmers, he adds: "The Cambodians are going to have to pay attention
to every inch of their border."
What is "absolutely crucial" - but so far absent - is a through study of
Cambodian border situation: identifying landmarks such as wats, interviewing local
people and referring to maps.
"Somebody should get out with a pair of binoculars or whatever and look at what's
there, interview the villagers. Somebody has to do that at some point."
Cambodia's borders with Laos and Vietnam were set by French decree as "administrative
boundaries" during the days of colonialism. Unlike its border with Thailand
- set by a 1907 treaty between the French Indochina government and the Kingdom of
Siam - no undisputed formal treaty exists for its other borders.
The only treaties signed between Vietnam and Cambodia were three - in 1982, 1983
and 1985 - between Hanoi and the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).
Signed while Vietnamese troops were occupying Cambodia, the legal status of those
treaties is open to contention. The 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, which led to the
troop withdrawal, called for the termination of all treaties and agreements "incompatible"
with Cambodia's sovereignty.
Government officials spoken to by the Post were loathe to offer any opinion on the
legality of those treaties, but they would presumably be at issue at any international
Opposition politician Sam Rainsy has set his sights on the treaties, alleging they
"gave the benefit of the doubt" to Vietnam, and has made their repeal part
of his political platform.
Rainsy has gone further, calling for the return of land "taken" by neighbors,
an indication of the political volatility of the issue. Even more so given that it
was current Second Prime Minister Hun Sen who headed the PRK at the time of the treaties,
and that Funcinpec and other parties fought the Vietnamese occupation.
In November, Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding with Laos to work jointly
on a border agreement but there has been little action to do the same with Vietnam.
One government official, who would not be named, warns that finding a definite border
settlement could take years, even without "any complicated problems."
"You have to agree on a map, study in the field, set up a commission....we have
to find the right solution, to negotiate.
"What is important is the spirit of goodwill on both sides. For the Cambodian
side, we have goodwill. We will try to find a solution with our neighbors, including
He adds: "We don't want land from our neighbor, but we don't want to lose our