Former King Norodom Sihanouk is understandably far from happy as he undergoes chemotherapy
at Beijing Hospital. Much of this unhappiness and frustration revolves around his
own sense of powerlessness in resolving Cambodia's sensitive border disputes with
its neighbours, especially Vietnam.
Underlying all this angst and anxiety is the unspoken fear that once Sihanouk leaves
the scene there may not be anyone influential enough to challenge the validity of
the border agreements Vietnam signed with Cambodia in the 80s, at a time when Vietnam
was an occupying force and the government in Phnom Penh then was not recognised by
the United Nations and lacked international legitimacy.
Sihanouk himself had never recognized these agreements with Vietnam, a sticking point
in bilateral relations. It was, therefore, small wonder that Sihanouk sent out an
open letter on March 31 to the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand unceremoniously
accusing them of even now "nibbling away" at Cambodian territory. This
was not pique, it was strategy.
The letter was more strident than Sihanouk's memorable quote some years earlier about
the stone border markers with Vietnam having legs and surreptitiously walking deeper
and deeper into Cambodian territory. Given these legs, Sihanouk in his letter called
for a "joint verification, kilometre by kilometre, on the ground and on the
spot of the delimitation of our common borders found in the US geographic maps produced
by Washington between 1963 and 1969."
Sihanouk's totally unexpected and unwelcome letter must have displeased Prime Minister
Hun Sen and the other Cambodian People's Party (CPP) leaders no end. They would have
immediately recognized it as being similar to Sihanouk's earlier abdication strategy
of forcing them to address an issue that was on the CPP back burner.
Likewise, the governments of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos would certainly not have
been amused by Sihanouk's gambit but diplomatically opted to maintain a frosty silence.
Sihanouk is far too astute not to have anticipated such reaction and would appear
to have calculated that desperate problems called for unorthodox measures.
Cambodian leaders are skilled in political manoeuvres and one-upmanship, which they
practice with tremendous enthusiasm. In the event, the Cambodian government was no
less creative than the former King and promptly established a politically heavyweight
seven-member Supreme National Council on Border Affairs, which Sihanouk was persuaded
to chair by King Norodom Sihamoni, his son.
It was all politically correct, and the initial hype raised expectations among the
Cambodian diaspora, in Cambodian newsgroups, and among sections of the Cambodian
public. The general view was that if anyone could move bilateral negotiations forward,
it would be Sihanouk, and that the council would go forth and boldly push the border
markers where they ought legitimately to be.
Much of the euphoria quickly evaporated and was replaced with sheer disappointment
when the royal decree which established the council was made public. These articles
of the decree were not seen as being politically correct at all, especially the requirement
that every decision of the council had to be unanimous. To many, this alone was an
unsurmountable hurdle as some in the council considered the border agreements signed
with Vietnam as the legitimate basis for negotiations. The others clearly found this
Significantly, a day before the inaugural meeting, state television telecast a speech
made in 2002 by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, a CPP strategist and member of the
council, in which he stoutly defended the border treaties of 1982, 1983 and 1985
that Cambodia had signed with Vietnam. The official explanation for the repeat telecast
was "to remind people that the government had worked hard on border issues".
The reality to most was that until and unless the council could speak with one voice,
there was little hope of negotiations or joint border inspections with the neighbouring
countries taking place any time soon, if at all.
There was also disappointment at two other constraints - that the council's deliberations
were to be kept confidential and that the council would serve in an advisory capacity,
which led Sihanouk to complain that it was effectively powerless. Neutral observers,
however, understand the need for secrecy when such sensitive internal issues are
discussed by the council.
Nevertheless, it was leaked to the media that at the inaugural two-day meeting on
May 11 and 12, council member Princess Norodom Vacheara submitted an amended draft
of the royal decree in which the council would be given greater powers, in particular
to negotiate directly with the neighbouring countries.
Both the royalist Funcinpec and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party supported the amended
royal decree while the CPP representatives needed time to discuss the issue within
the party structure.
Sihanouk played his cards well. He did not openly betray any disappointment or raise
any doubts. At the end of the inaugural meeting, Sihanouk diplomatically expressed
optimism and that "everyone had learned from one another" about the complex
border issues. This did not prevent him a couple of days later from calling on "anonymous
patriotic compatriots" to discreetly report to him of border encroachments.
No date has been set for the next meeting. The initial euphoria and high expectations
are gone. The cynics and the detractors see little hope.
The King's admirers are glad that the controversial agreements were given an international
airing and believe that Sihanouk may have a couple of tricks up his sleeve.
For the moment the concern is for Sihanouk's health.
Verghese Mathews was Singapore's former Ambassador to Cambodia and is currently a
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.