Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Less an invasion, more a Vietnamese "creep"

Less an invasion, more a Vietnamese "creep"

Less an invasion, more a Vietnamese "creep"

DOUNG, Svay Rieng - This isolated outpost on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border is a

prime example of festering territorial confusion. No-one is sure of just where the

official border lies, or where it ought to, and no-one really knows what to do about


Khmer and Vietnamese farmers, hungry for land, vie for disputed soil. The Khmers

complain of the historic - and, they say, the continuing - "theft" of Cambodian


There are no border markers here - there was no agreement on where to put them -

but for years there has been a rough "no man's land" stretching about 1,000m

between the Cambodian and Vietnamese border checkpoints.

Now, Vietnam has staked claim to most of that land.

As the last rainy season ended, Vietnamese authorities told Khmer farmers on the

no-man's land to hurry and clear their harvest - and not to return.

Virtually as soon as they went, Vietnamese farmers moved in to plant potatoes.

On Dec 30, a Vietnamese truck arrived and workman began digging a bunker for a new

Vietnamese checkpoint some 120 meters from the Cambodian one.

Presuming that the border, at least unofficially, should lie in the middle of the

1000m no-man's land (and the Vietnamese don't accept that), Cambodia lost 380m of


Khmer villagers and monks from a nearby pagoda gathered and entreated the Vietnamese

to go back. An uneasy stalemate has developed; the Vietnamese are manning the new

checkpoint but have built no more than a tarpaulin over the bunker.

Talks between local authorities from both sides produced no more than an agreement

to disagree, while the Cambodians claim the Vietnamese have called in special forces

soldiers to reinforce their border officers.

This is Vietnam's "invasion" of Cambodia, as First Prime Minister Norodom

Ranariddh puts it, mirrored by claimed recent encroachments in Takeo, Prey Veng and

Kompong Cham.

It's an age-old story. Memories of Cambodia's loss of land to Vietnam over centuries

are revived by modern-day disputes over the use of neutral ground and the alleged

blatant moving of border markers.

Encroachments are claimed to have occurred in recent years on Cambodia's border with

Thailand as well, but it is the eastern border with Vietnam which attracts the most


The government has previously said that some 1200 square km of border land in Takeo,

Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Kompong Cham and Kampot is in dispute. Villagers in Ratanakiri

and Mondulkiri have also complained of losing land.

In a report to the co-Prime Ministers in 1994, Kompong Cham governor Hun Neng said

at least 870 hectares had been lost to Vietnam in previous months in two districts


During the earlier UN peace-keeping mission, officials gathered evidence of Vietnamese

encroachments in several key areas - up to 2.5km into Cambodian territory in parts

of Svay Rieng and several hundred meters in Takeo - which are now again in the spotlight.

At Doung village, a small trading post about 50km from Svay Rieng town and bordering

Vietnam's Tay Ninh province, local officials say about 150 hectares of land is currently

at stake.

Former monk Cheat Phy, 65, has lived here most of his life. He remembers the first

time he was forced to leave, by the French colonialists fighting the Khmer Issarak

and Viet Minh independence movements.

He and his family returned, until they were made to leave during the Khmer Rouge

years, and then came back again. Pressed for land, they and other villagers grew

crops on the neutral ground between the two countries.

Phy is adamant the land - and more - is Cambodia's.

"This goes back to the 1800s. Khmers used to cultivate land right up to the

river," he says, pointing several kilometers into Vietnam. "Now, we are

running out of land."

Khmers cite the remains of ancient Wat Doung, near where the Cambodian border checkpoint

is now. According to Ok Hann, deputy chief of Romeas Hek district, the Vietnamese

claim the wat marks the border.

"According to the map they used, the border was supposed to come across the

temple. Normally, Khmers would have built a wat inside Khmer territory, so we could

not agree to this."

Hann says there are no border stones for at least 4-5km in the area, after past negotiations

to mark the boundary failed.

Tensions grew in recent years, when the Vietnamese demanded taxes from Khmer farmers

using the no-man's land. Work on an irrigation well, apparently within 500m of the

Cambodian checkpoint, was abandoned in the face of Vietnamese objections.

The Vietnamese extended a road virtually up to the Cambodian checkpoint, ostensibly

to help cross-border trade, and then asked Khmer farmers to apply for permission

to use the land. Some refused and were arrested (later freed by negotiation) but

officials say they know of no violent clashes.

Hann openly acknowledges he doesn't know where the real border should be but says

that, according to elderly villagers, "that land is Khmer."

"Now it seems that the local people on both sides are waiting for instructions

from their top leaders.

"The [Khmer] villagers urge the government to clearly study the map and define

the border line to stop this confusion."

Whether there is political willpower on the part of either country to do just that

is far from certain.

Last January, during a visit by Ranariddh to Hanoi, Vietnam and Cambodia agreed to

establish a joint "Expert Working Group" to "to discuss and settle

the issue of demarcation".

A year later, the group has never met, according to Cambodian and Vietnamese officials.

The Hanoi agreement - which Ranariddh alleges was broken by recent events such as

at Doung - was that the "present management" of the border would not be

changed until there was a final settlement.

It may or may not constitute an "invasion" but it could be seen as a gradual

"creep" into Cambodian territory that echoes thousands of years of history.

After throwing off the Chinese yoke in the 10th Century, the Vietnamese began what

they call the Nham Tien (Southward Push). Over centuries, Vietnam absorbed the ancient

Kingdom of Champa as well as former Cambodian land now called Kampuchea Krom.

"The Vietnamese are extremely well aware of their Nham Tien to look for rice

lands," says one foreign academic in Phnom Penh who has studied Vietnamese expansionism.

"In a way you could look at what's happening now as a continuation of this demographic

push that is thousands of years old.

"It's just a demographic reality that when you have 85 million people in Vietnam,

you need more land."

Noting that hill tribes people in the Vietnam highlands have in recent years been

displaced by farmers, he adds: "The Cambodians are going to have to pay attention

to every inch of their border."

What is "absolutely crucial" - but so far absent - is a through study of

Cambodian border situation: identifying landmarks such as wats, interviewing local

people and referring to maps.

"Somebody should get out with a pair of binoculars or whatever and look at what's

there, interview the villagers. Somebody has to do that at some point."

Cambodia's borders with Laos and Vietnam were set by French decree as "administrative

boundaries" during the days of colonialism. Unlike its border with Thailand

- set by a 1907 treaty between the French Indochina government and the Kingdom of

Siam - no undisputed formal treaty exists for its other borders.

The only treaties signed between Vietnam and Cambodia were three - in 1982, 1983

and 1985 - between Hanoi and the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).

Signed while Vietnamese troops were occupying Cambodia, the legal status of those

treaties is open to contention. The 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, which led to the

troop withdrawal, called for the termination of all treaties and agreements "incompatible"

with Cambodia's sovereignty.

Government officials spoken to by the Post were loathe to offer any opinion on the

legality of those treaties, but they would presumably be at issue at any international

border talks.

Opposition politician Sam Rainsy has set his sights on the treaties, alleging they

"gave the benefit of the doubt" to Vietnam, and has made their repeal part

of his political platform.

Rainsy has gone further, calling for the return of land "taken" by neighbors,

an indication of the political volatility of the issue. Even more so given that it

was current Second Prime Minister Hun Sen who headed the PRK at the time of the treaties,

and that Funcinpec and other parties fought the Vietnamese occupation.

In November, Cambodia signed a memorandum of understanding with Laos to work jointly

on a border agreement but there has been little action to do the same with Vietnam.

One government official, who would not be named, warns that finding a definite border

settlement could take years, even without "any complicated problems."

"You have to agree on a map, study in the field, set up a commission....we have

to find the right solution, to negotiate.

"What is important is the spirit of goodwill on both sides. For the Cambodian

side, we have goodwill. We will try to find a solution with our neighbors, including


He adds: "We don't want land from our neighbor, but we don't want to lose our

land either."


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