Former King Norodom Sihanouk, who has been on an extended stay in Beijing since January,
partly for his regular medical consultations and partly as an expression of his unhappiness
over certain domestic political developments, is now expected to return soon to Phnom
Concern and speculation over the health of the 82-year-old King-Father, as he has
been designated since his retirement in October 2004, were heightened when his son,
King Norodom Sihamoni, left for Beijing on April 23 to be with his father.
A newspaper hastily contacted Sihanouk's biographer in its preparation of an obituary.
This and other speculation prompted the former King to apologize, tongue-in-cheek,
for not being able to oblige those who were prematurely predicting his demise, explaining
that "for the moment, God and the Buddha have not decided to send me to the
While this was welcome news and put an end to fears about the health of the much-loved
former monarch, most Cambodians were not prepared for the unexpected development
that followed - the retired King accepted an invitation to chair the newly formed
Supreme National Council on Border Affairs.
In a letter written from Beijing and to Prime Minister Hun Sen, King Sihamoni said
that his father had accepted his invitation to lead the Council, explaining, "at
the end of his life, he wishes to serve the nation and the people in the framework
of his mission to protect the kingdom's territorial integrity." The King added
that Sihanouk was "still full of energy to fulfill this duty."
The King went on to mention that if neighbors Vietnam, Thailand and Laos were agreeable
to appoint representatives, Sihanouk would enter into discussions with them on the
modality for undertaking the demarcation of the disputed borders based on detailed
maps prepared by the US in the sixties.
Border integrity is a sensitive issue in Cambodia's relations with its neighbors
and in domestic Cambodian politics. Sihanouk has himself been a severe critic of
the border agreements reached between Cambodia and its neighbors during the 1979
to 1991 period, when the Vietnamese were still present in Cambodia following the
Khmer Rouge period. Sihanouk is not alone in this. There is a strong and vocal lobby
not only in the country but among overseas Cambodians who argue that not only had
Cambodia significantly lost out territories in these agreements but that encroachment
of Cambodian land has continued unabated to this day.
To drive home the point, a story circulated not too long ago about the family home
of Heng Samrin, the Honorary President of the CPP. According to the story, Samrin's
house, located along the Cambodian Vietnam border, was now in Vietnamese territory.
Not surprisingly, border integrity was an issue during the last elections and again
factored in the negotiations between the dominant Cambodian Peoples Party and the
royalist Funcinpec. Interestingly, it is now Funcinpec, the party founded by Sihanouk,
which is championing the border cause and calling for the implementation of the previously
agreed seven-member supra-council in which the King, the National Assembly, the Senate,
the government and the three political parties nominate a representative each.
The King nominates the Chairman of the Council and in the event has chosen his father,
a decision that must have had the tacit support of CPP leader Hun Sen and Funcinpec
leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the new King's half-brother.
The former King's acceptance of the important post suggests a much welcomed easing
of tensions between him and the politicians, and paves the way for him to return
home to the welcome of a people for which he genuinely cares.
There are, however, serious difficulties ahead for Sihanouk's Council. In the first
instance, he has to work out an internal consensus among the heavyweight politicians
who are Council members. They represent those who want the cancellation of all bilateral
border treaties entered upon between 1979 and 1991, and those who uphold the validity
of the existing treaties.
Sihanouk has the skills, the experience and the personal standing to hammer out a
loose working arrangement.
His major difficulty will be in dealing with his neighbors - especially given his
intention of basing the negotiations on the maps prepared by the Americans in the
sixties. Even if the modality for the negotiations are agreed upon, the process could
There is already in existence a border committee which has been negotiating with
the neighboring countries on the basis of the border agreements already in force.
There has yet been no official disclosure on the future of this committee, which
is not universally popular, but which some believe can serve the new body on technical
Given Sihanouk's strident criticisms about the loss of Khmer land, there are those
who believe that heading the Supreme Border Council presents him the opportunity
to bring his wisdom to bear on this sensitive issue.
The neighbors, however, will not easily forget a strongly worded open letter Sihanouk
sent on March 31 this year to the governments of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam on the
loss of Khmer land. He pointed out that Cambodia was not clamoring for "her
lands, seas, and islands" lost during "the post-Angokorian Period from
the 15th to 19th century and even after that."
Sihanouk continued, however, that "the Nation, the People, and the State of
Cambodia (Kampuchea) would not accept to lose (unfairly and illegally to Your unjustifiable
gain) even one square meter, one-tenth of a square meter, or a square centimeter
of her (land and maritime) territorial integrity which she owned in all legality
and legitimacy as clearly indicated in the military maps produced by the U.S.A. (Your
Friends, an ex-Enemy of Norodom Sihanouk): these are maps produced between 1963 (one
year after the equitable Verdict on Preah Vihear by the Hague International Court
of Justice) and 1969 (one year before the anti-constitutional Putsch by Lon Nol,
Sirik Matak and Co., the satellites of Uncle Sam and President Richard Nixon).
"Since my return to my Homeland, in 1991 up until now, I had, alas, observed
that You three (Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos) never ceased, do not cease and continue
to nibble away little by little the villages, lands, seas, and islands belonging
to Cambodia, an ASEAN member just like You.
"To cite only the villages belonging to poor Khmer people [living] near Vietnam,
numerous of these villages which, under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum Era (1955-1969),
were well within Cambodia, now find themselves located within the S.R. of Vietnam's
boundary; these villages are well-kept and protected by militia and soldiers of this
S.R.V. Everyone knows that the new maritime borders delimitation between Cambodia
and Thailand on one hand, and between Cambodia and Vietnam, on the other hand, gave
enormous advantages, in terms of seas and islands, to these two large neighbors with
respect to what these two large neighbors owned up to 1969.
"The Cambodian People, all Khmer men and women both inside and outside of Cambodia,
who are not traitors to their Homeland, request that You nobly come to respect international
Law, the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia, and the UN Charter, by accepting,
with a fair play which will avoid you dishonor, to surrender to the current Cambodia
the villages, lands, seas, and islands that You had stolen and took away from us.
"Since You had claimed to the world that You are neither thieves nor gulpers
of Khmer villages, lands, seas, and islands, please accept with open heart and as
soon as possible, my Proposal of verification, kilometer by kilometer, on the ground
and on the spot of the delimitation of our common borders found in the U.S. geographic
Maps produced by Washington D.C. between 1963 and 1969, by both Your accredited envoys
and by those of Cambodia."
These are tough words which explains the deep emotions over the issue. Emotions,
however, will not resolve border problems anywhere in the world - what's needed are
documents, maps, goodwill, patience and tolerance. Fortunately, Sihanouk has the
astute political sense and the long experience to rise above emotions. He, nevertheless,
has a tough job ahead of him.
The writer, until recently Singapore's Ambassador to Cambodia, is a Visiting Research
Fellow in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.