As tensions between Cambodia and Laos flared over an ongoing territorial dispute in February, Lao soldiers seized and imprisoned a Cambodian border policeman, Sing In, who said he was drinking wine at his Lao wife’s native village across the border.
In became the unwitting pawn in a fractious game between Laos and Cambodia, whose forces are standing off across still-unmarked sections of border that both governments have nonetheless increasingly sought to enforce in recent months.
Soon after In was taken, Cambodian gendarmes cooperating in a manhunt led by border police detained six Laotians on a roadside in Stung Treng province.
Then on March 8, at a remote outpost overlooking the Sekong River, the Cambodian officer and the detained Laotians were exchanged, after negotiations involving the Foreign Ministry.
At the same time, at least three other Cambodians arrested by Laos were also released, Stung Treng province military chief Svay Nhan said in an interview this week.
The seizures and swap, say some of those involved, could stem from the current friction over Cambodia’s building of a border road through territory Laos says is undemarcated. But, in any case, they appear to highlight stiffening relations on the northern border, where fluid movement of people for centuries has scattered ethnic Laotians and Khmer on both sides of the divide.
Villagers have long travelled up and down rivers such as the Mekong and Sekong without notifying authorities as they cross the international boundary. But since the flare-up, Lao authorities have warned their Cambodian counterparts to put a stop to this, officials say.
Even before marrying his Lao wife in 2003, Sing In, the deputy chief of the Border Protection Police Unit 701’s outpost in remote Koh Russei village, said he had been moving up and down the river and across the border without a problem.
But that changed on February 25, when, according to the 44-year-old, his plans for a drink with buddies and in-laws across the border turned into a diplomatic incident.
Recalling the ordeal from his outpost’s sparse wooden headquarters, which overlooks riparian traffic on the Sekong River as it flows in from Laos, the father of two said he launched his thin wooden boat at about 4:30pm and began the 30-minute trip north to his wife’s native village.
Ever cautious, he had phoned ahead, just to check how things were. “I rang a man in the [Lao] village and he said it was safe, everything was fine.”
But some 20 kilometres away, at the end of a freshly cut road that starts on the riverbank opposite his post, the situation was far from relaxed.
In the weeks prior to his visit, some 400 Lao troops had crossed the river’s eastward branch, which for about 40 kilometres forms a natural boundary between the two countries – natural, but not agreed.
Wielding automatic rifles, the Lao troops confronted military engineers and demanded they stop building the road, claiming the area is undemarcated.
The site has since remained a hotbed of tension, with increased Cambodian troop numbers intercepting at least two Lao patrols.
But this wasn’t on In’s mind as he docked in his wife’s village, he said, recalling that he enjoyed his first two glasses of wine and rang his Lao friend, a soldier, to join. When several soldiers turned up, however, the atmosphere quickly changed.
“They surrounded me under the house. I stood up as they tried to arrest me. I walked out of the house and pushed away their hands and about six grabbed me and used a buffalo rope to tie me up. Police brought some handcuffs and they put me in a car,” he recalled.
“My wife was crying nearby as they arrested me. They took me to a military station, sat me on a chair and questioned me. At about 1am they put me in a truck to Attapeu provincial town. Police put me in prison.”
The arrest of Cambodians in Laos or vice versa is not uncommon, though those detained are often seized in connection with drugs, logging or hunting in the border regions.
But following the recent dispute, tensions have risen across the border, something border police officers stationed at checkpoints near the main international checkpoint of Trapeang Kriel can attest to.
Sok Nam, 52, mans an outpost on National Road 7, a few hundred metres from a Lao outpost that sparked controversy when its occupants began building a well, which Cambodia says violates the agreement not to build in border-side “white zones”.
“Before people could go on the river way, but now only the front gate; it’s not easy like before for people crossing,” said Nam, who heard reports that In was arrested for “being a spy”.
Another officer, posted to a small land crossing in O’Svay commune – which was briefly shut earlier this month after about 30 Lao troops entered and fanned across the border in response to Cambodia’s attempt to build a small shelter – said relations were at their lowest point in his almost two decades on the border.
“There were a few confrontations, about four or five times, but not like this,” said the officer, who requested anonymity.
In prison, Sing In was locked in a 5-by-4-metre cell with 28 inmates, mostly drug offenders, slept on the floor and ate only rice. He says he was questioned on several occasions about his role with the border police and his marriage to a Laotian. “They said I had entered their country without permission,” In recalled.
But asked if he was ever worried, he said no. “I just thought my boss would get me out.”
In the days after In’s arrest, officers from the Border Police Unit 701 stationed in Samaki commune got an alert from their superiors: a group of six Lao civilians were in the country with a Cambodian guide and were heading west in a van from Ratanakkiri province, where they had been visiting relatives.
According to one of the officers, who declined to give his name, the men grabbed their guns and headed to the border road only to learn their targets, who he said were illegally in the country, had ditched the car.
“We sent our force but they could not find them. They hid in the forest. At about 6pm or 7pm at night we withdrew our forces but we asked people around if they had seen any strangers, we also cooperated with the military police.”
By about 8:30pm, however, gendarmes had found the group on the side of National Road 7, the officer said. “They handed them over to our unit and we called the 701 headquarters. They sent a car to pick them up so at this point it was out of my hands.”
Back in the provincial prison in Laos, In said he knew his case was progressing after a comment from one of the Lao officials. “One of the policemen said my case had reached the embassy,” he said.
Svay Nhan, the Stung Treng provincial military commander, said the case was handled by foreign affairs officials from both countries. Nhan said that, as well as In, three Cambodians from Ratanakkiri province were also released by Laos, though he said he could not recall the details of their case.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry was unreachable to discuss the matter. In said he was released on March 8 at his border post in Koh Russei village, where the six Laotians were also handed over.
“It was in the morning, the Laotians and the Cambodians came together and we sat in here,” he said, adding the delegations signed and stamped some transfer documents, while one the officers present made a joke about the lop-sided swap. “They said, ‘Look, it’s you for six people’.”
Though Nhan rejected the assertion there were tensions on the border, In thinks differently. He said he believed his seizure could be in part connected to the friction, but also said he could have been “set up” by his Lao soldier friend.
Another border policeman, who declined to be named, also suggested extortion was involved, saying Lao soldiers had demanded $4,000 from In’s wife while he was in prison. However, he thinks the current stand-off may also be a factor.
“Why did they make a problem now?” he asked.
As a ferry conveyed an excavator back across the Sekong from the where the contentious road begins on the east bank, In said he felt like he’d been taken as a “hostage” in a dispute over territory. A dispute, he said, which had, at least temporarily, changed the way of life for those near the border including his wife, who has stopped making her once-regular visits to Laos.
“We used to be able to go from village to village but now Cambodia and Laos fight like cats and dogs,” he said.
“My wife cannot go back.”