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Border row amid state visit by Laos

Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith (centre) arrives at a G-20 Summit last September. Afp
Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith (centre) arrives at a G-20 Summit last September. AFP

Border row amid state visit by Laos

Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith is expected to arrive in Phnom Penh today for a state visit to the Kingdom. Meanwhile 600 kilometres away, Cambodian and Lao troops remain in a stand-off after a territorial dispute over a Cambodian-built road near the countries’ border.

Billed as a meeting to “enhance friendship”, the two-day trip by Vorachith was announced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week, and will include a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry and government official Eang Sophalleth, who is close to the premier, said they weren’t yet aware of the leaders’ agenda for the talks at the Peace Palace.

However, with some 400 Lao soldiers deployed on their country’s side of the Sekong River, according to a recent National Police report, and Cambodian troops also massing in the area, analysts yesterday said the leaders would likely discuss the current stand-off to defuse local tensions on the frontier.

“I don’t see a danger of this escalating once it’s been discussed at a high level,” said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. “Laos isn’t going to be pressing and vice-versa with Cambodia.”

The dispute began on February 8, when Cambodian officials say Lao soldiers crossed into Siem Pang district to demand military engineers cease work on a road they claim strayed into border territory not yet demarcated.

Calling such disputes “normal”, Minister for Border Affairs Var Kimhong yesterday said the planned 257-kilometre road between Stung Treng town and Siem Pang was inside Cambodia, but work had been postponed as the area was not yet demarcated.

“When they build, we stop them; when we build, they stop us, but we discuss with each other, reach an understanding,” he said, adding more than 80 percent of the countries’ border had been defined.

Indeed, the incident echoes a dispute last April when Cambodia objected to Laos building a military base on the border in Thala Barivat district.

Paul Chambers, professor of international relations at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University, said the “frontier frictions” could have an adverse impact on bilateral relations if uncertainty over the border was not cleared up.

“This recent incident could be simply tit-for-tat, as Laos may be demonstrating its border prowess in response to Cambodia’s earlier objection,” he said.

Reached yesterday, Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said he was confident of a diplomatic solution.

“We have ordered our armed forces there to solve the problem peacefully,” he said.

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