LINES IN THE SEA
Both the Royal Government and the opposition argue that the Brevié Line should
be the basis for the sea border between Vietnam and Cambodia. Vietnam, however,
believes that a 1984 UN treaty should be considered during negotiations.
AS ELECTION day approaches few issues can remain outside the political spotlight
and on-going Cambodian-Vietnamese border negotiations are no exception.
While Cambodia's head of delegation Var Kim Hong declared he was satisfied with the
talks so far, opposition politicians Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy have
not missed out on an opportunity to criticize the CPP-led government.
Prince Ranariddh described the last round of talks as a "complete failure".
These border talks, held June 16-20 in Phnom Penh, failed to reach a final agreement
on the maritime boundary between the two countries.
Instead, a bilateral treaty on "historical waters" - first signed in 1982
by then-Foreign Minister Hun Sen of the Vietnamese-installed People's Republic of
Kam-puchea regime - was revalidated by the Royal Government of Cambodia.
Under this treaty, a rectangular-shaped area outside Cam-bodia's eastern coast stretching
approximately 120km out to sea with the islands of Tho Chu and Poulu Wai at its outer
corners is jointly administered by the two countries.
Both Ranariddh and Rainsy reject the 1982 treaty which they argue was signed by Hanoi.
"It is very clear it is against the interests of Cambodia," Prince Ranariddh
said of the 1982 treaty.
"It is against international law, it is against the real history... It is against
Cambodian-Vietnamese relations have been far from trouble-free, especially when it
comes to border issues.
Clashes have occurred sporadically on the border over the past several decades, with
the most recent flare-up in 1996.
Border clashes also preceded the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that ousted
the vehemently anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge from power.
However, Ranariddh's and Rainsy's criticisms of the negotiations during the election
campaign appear to seize mostly on Cambodians' fear of Vietnamese domination as the
opposition attempts to draw votes away from the CPP.
Despite all the tough talk and strong statements, both Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh
want to settle for the same boundary line that the current government is pushing
for - the so-called Brevié Line.
This boundary line, named after French Governor General of Indochina Jules Brevié,
was drawn by the French in 1939 as an administrative border between its two Indochinese
colonies, Cambodia and Cochin China.
Sam Rainsy, urging Vietnam to recognize the Brevié Line, explained: "It
is a matter of principle.
"We must accept the boundaries we inherited from colonial powers."
Ranariddh, who takes a firmer stance than his National United Front ally, said: "When
we talk about the border we have to talk about the Brevié at least. It is the
Information Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith, a spokesman for the CPP, called the
opposition politicians' criticisms of the talks "politically motivated",
reminding that the negotiations have not been between politicians but technicians.
Furthermore, Kanharith explained that the agreement, when reached, will not be one
between the two governments only. Before Cambodia can consider any border deal valid,
he said, it must also be accepted by the National Assembly.
So far, Vietnam has refuted all attempts by Cambodia to have the Brevié Line
recognized as a maritime boundary, arguing that it is an administrative border only.
A spokesman at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh told the Post after the last
border talks that Vietnam was not prepared to recognize the old French-drawn boundary.
Instead, it prefers to draw a new line based on the 1982 UN Convention of the Law
of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which it is a party.
The UNCLOS, which came into force in November 1994, gives coastal states the right
to extend their territory 12 nautical miles from their coastlines.
It also gives them a further exclusive right to exploit resources within 200 nautical
miles from the coast.
The most contentious issue appears to be a large Vietnamese-controlled island off
the coast of Cambodia, Phu Quoc (called Koh Tral by Cambodia), and the water surrounding
While Var Kim Hong said Cambodia had recognized the island as Vietnamese in 1982,
Ranariddh claimed that legal ownership of the island - as well as a swath of Vietnamese
territory east of Svay Rieng province know as Kampuchea Krom - was never settled.
"We recognize that de facto Kampuchea Krom on the one hand, including Koh Tral
on the other, is not a part of Cambodia," the Prince said.
"But de jure we never recognized that Kampuchea Krom or Koh Tral belong to Vietnam."
According to the French colonial authorities, the Brevié Line is "a line
around the north of [Phu Quoc] passing 3km [1.65 nautical miles] from the extreme
ends of the north shore of this island".
This would give Vietnam 10.35 nautical miles less of territorial water around Phu
Quoc than they would be entitled to claim under UNCLOS regulations.
An additional problem is that the distance between Phu Quoc and Cambodia's coast
is too short to allow both countries full territorial sea in this area.
At some points the distance is 6 nautical miles which is only half the width of the
Thus, any enlargement of Vietnamese territorial water around Phu Quoc inevitably
reduces Cambodian territorial claims.
Vietnam, using UNCLOS guidelines, has argued that the border should be drawn equidistant
from the Cambodia's and Phu Quoc's coasts.
Although willing to accept that Phu Quoc is Vietnamese, Var Kim Hong said Cambodia
does not want to use UNCLOS rules to draw the sea border because the case cannot
be considered normal.
"For us it is not fair to recognize Koh Tral as Vietnamese, and then they want
to apply the UNCLOS," he said, explaining that determining the sea border must
include historical considerations so special circumstances should apply.
An additional argument on the Cambodian side is that it is not considered a party
to UNCLOS because it has not yet ratified the treaty.
The next round of negotiations, in which a final agreement is hoped to be reached,
is set to take place in late August in Hanoi.
With a Cambodian election occurring in the interim, it remains to be seen who will
steer the Cambodian ship through these talks.
According to Var Kim Hong, it will not make any difference which party will conduct
the negotiations - Cambodia's official policy is to build a border of goodwill and
"We want to get a borderline accepted by both sides" he said.
However, Ranariddh said if Funcinpec wins the election Vietnam can expect Cambodia
to push for a complete re-negotiation of the sea boundary.