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Comment: Border issues show Sihanouk still in political fray

Comment: Border issues show Sihanouk still in political fray

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.


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