POLICE in Takeo province on Thursday prevented a delegation of Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers from visiting a site along the Vietnamese border in Takeo’s Borei Cholsa district, in the latest in a series of showdowns between the opposition and the government over alleged Vietnamese encroachment.
Last week, Borei Cholsa residents complained that newly planted border posts along the Vietnamese frontier had cut off large portions of their farmland. Provincial authorities, they said, had prevented them from examining the border posts and had threatened them with imprisonment if they were to protest. Takeo provincial Governor Srey Ben said Wednesday that Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities had only been on a surveying mission in the area, and had not yet planted permanent border markers.
On Thursday, 20 SRP parliamentarians and around 100 supporters attempted to visit the border posts in question, but were confronted in Borei Cholsa’s Chey Chauk commune by around 30 provincial and military police and about 50 local residents who prevented them from going farther. The two sides exchanged words heatedly before the SRP delegation turned back.
“The SRP does not have permission from the government, so we do not permit them to enter,” Chey Chauk commune chief Tuon Vanhorm said.
“Let me see a letter of permission first, and then we will permit the delegation to enter.”
On Tuesday, after being notified about the planned trip to Takeo by the SRP, National Assembly President Heng Samrin wrote a letter in response, saying that he “would not allow and would not be responsible” for the SRP’s trip.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann called the restriction of the delegation’s movements “illegal” and said that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had paid off local villagers to join the blockade.
“This is intimidation,” Yim Sovann said. “They have illegally blocked the people’s representatives from fulfilling their duty.”
The SRP has made alleged Vietnamese encroachment along the border one of its signature issues since October, when opposition leader Sam Rainsy led local residents in uprooting border posts in Svay Rieng province’s Chantrea district that he claimed had been planted illegally. In January, the Svay Rieng provincial court sentenced Sam Rainsy to two years in prison in connection with the incident, and two Chantrea residents who took part in the protest received one-year jail terms.
Sam Rainsy, who has been travelling abroad since last year, was charged in March with falsifying public documents and spreading disinformation after he staged several video press conferences arguing his case and highlighting the border issue.
Var Kimhong, the government’s senior official in charge of border affairs, declined to comment on Thursday about the SRP’s trip and about the border-demarcation process more generally.
“I gave, already, all this information,” Var Kimhong said, referring to a November appearance before the National Assembly in which he defended the government’s approach to demarcation of its eastern border. “I don’t want to repeat again, again, again.”
Var Kimhong told the assembly in November that 140 of 375 planned border markers had been planted along Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s 1,270-kilometre shared border, a process that began in 2006 and is set to be finished by 2012.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said local authorities needed to prove that the SRP members were a security threat in order to legally justify restricting their movements. The government, he added, risked drawing more attention to the Vietnamese border by continuing to stifle discussion about it.
“If they act like this, then maybe people will still be suspicious about the problems along the border, so I think it is not a good way,” Sok Sam Oeun said.
Puon Pon, a Borei Cholsa district resident who joined the group blocking the SRP delegation, said he did not believe the farmland of local villagers had been significantly affected by the new border posts.
“They were planted in rice fields, but that land does not belong to anyone – it is state land,” Puon Pon said.
But Keo Kim, a Borei Cholsa resident who joined the SRP delegation, said the border posts would cost him all 2.5 hectares of his farmland if they became permanent. Police in Takeo, he added, had unjustly prevented the SRP delegation from investigating the issue.
“If the markers that they have planted are made official, my land will be totally lost,” Keo Kim said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE AND CHHAY CHANNYDA IN PHNOM PENH