Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Paradise lost

Paradise lost

Paradise lost

On a clear day the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc is visible from the top of Bokor

Mountain in Kampot.

Fishing boats prepare to head into the Gulf of Thailand from Duong Dong.

From the lookout the mountainous island appears close enough to reach out and touch.

At only 15 kilometers from Kampot, it is easily reached by boat - or would be

if boats were allowed to travel there from Cambodia.

To Cambodians the island is still wistfully known by its Khmer name "Koh Tral".

While the island has never had a Khmer administration, it has long been claimed by

Cambodia. Some of the country's more strident nationalists still regard the island

as part of Cambodia.

"The French just gave Vietnam the administration, not the ownership, of that

territory," says Sun Sokunmealea, permanent vice-president of the Democratic

Front of Khmer Students and Intellectuals (DFKSI). "We still believe that Koh

Tral and Kampuchea Krom [Vietnam's delta region] belong to us."

Kampuchea Krom, home to Ho Chi Minh City, is today unequivocally part of Vietnam,

despite the protestations of groups like DFKSI. The island, though, has a mixed history:

the basis of the Cambodian claim goes back to the 1850s when the French sought to

negotiate with Cambodia for control of the island.

In 1939 the French governor-general of Indochina, Jules Brevie, drew the "Brevie

Line", a colonial exercise to determine which part of the French-run civil service

would administer the seas between Cambodia and Vietnam. The Brevie Line circumscribed

the island by 1.5 kilometers to keep it within the administration of Cochin China,

which is today southern Vietnam.

Brevie tried to avoid the issue of sovereignty by saying the division was merely

administrative, but when Vietnam was recognized as a united state ten years later,

its control of the island was solidified.

Phu Quoc's more than 50,000 inhabitants survive on fishing, farming and tourism.

The 48 kilometer long island is famous in Vietnam for its hunting dogs, black pepper

and high quality fish sauce.

A flotilla of small fishing boats heads daily to sea, returning their catch to be

processed into a sauce that is exported to half a dozen countries. The rich fishing

resources are just one reason that successive Cambodian administrations have tried

through diplomacy and force to regain control of the island.

In 1960 Cambodia's then chief of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, tried the first

option. He warned that losing the strategically positioned island would strangle

the port at Kampong Som and lead "very soon to the end of our independence".

The tranquil waters of Bai Sao beach on Phu Quoc.

His efforts went unre-warded, and by the end of the decade the island, which had

become a massive war-time prison, held 40,000 Vietcong prisoners. With the imminent

collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 and the withdrawal of US troops,

the island appeared up for grabs.

One of the first acts of the Khmer Rouge after seizing Phnom Penh in April 1975 was

to try to capture Phu Quoc. Only two days after the KR seized the Cambodian capital,

Khe Muth, son-in-law of KR commander Ta Mok, shelled the island.

Khmer Rouge soldiers swam ashore on May 4 and placed a plain red revolutionary flag

on the beach. It was the first of Democratic Kampuchea's numerous attempts to 'reclaim'

lost territory, and was to prove as unsuccessful as other forays launched over the

next few years.

South Vietnamese helicopters strafed the flag with machine gun fire, and the Khmer

Rouge troops immediately replaced it. That was repeated again and again until North

Vietnamese soldiers swept down and repelled the KR forces.

Phu Quoc became the key sticking point at a meeting between Vietnam and Cambodia

in 1977 to resolve the maritime border dispute with the Cambodians walking out in

protest. Border conflicts only stopped when Vietnamese-backed forces invaded Cambodia

and toppled Pol Pot's regime.

The island's strategic position is clearly valued by Vietnam. Naval ships are docked

in the port at An Thoi and several military bases are arranged on both the southern

and northern tips of the island where gun emplacements point out to the Gulf of Thailand.

Schoolgirls in traditional ao dai uniforms cycle through Duong Dong.

The military and diplomatic disputes may be in the past, but the rich fishing grounds

in the area are still cause for discontent. Most boats caught fishing illegally in

Cambodian waters are Thai rather than Vietnamese, says the director of Cambodia's

Fisheries Department, Nao Thouk.

The risks are high: transgressors are arrested, heavily fined and can even have their

boat seized if they are found in Cambodian waters. That keeps many out, says Thouk.

Phu Quoc's future looks set to be characterized by increased tourism. The island's

unspoiled forested interior, hot springs and clear waters make it a likely destination

for Vietnam's growing number of tourists.

The powdery white sand on the eastern beaches is so soft that one is known by the

name "ice cream beach". Vietnamese holiday makers stay in makeshift beach

shacks, while Ho Chi Minh City's noveau riche book in at the three star, state-owned

beach resort. Backpackers while away their days on the beach at one of a number of

budget resorts near the township of Duong Dong.

For western tourists there is only one way to visit Phu Quoc, and that is from Vietnam.

For locals, says a Vietnamese tour guide, things are a little easier: despite territorial

antagonism, a small, albeit illicit, trade flourishes between the two countries.

Cargoes of fish and goods are surreptitiously exchanged between locals and the nearby

Cambodian mainland, and it is also possible for cunning locals to slip across the

border if they wish. Many islanders avoided the war in Vietnam by crossing into Cambodia

in the early 1970s, then evaded the Khmer Rouge by returning after 1975, often with

Khmer wives in tow.

Other Khmers long for the return of the island. A group of expatriates living in

France formed a committee in the mid-1990s to "save" Koh Tral. The aim

was to take the matter to the international court at the Hague, but so far nothing

much seems to have happened.

Vietnamese children play at a maritime monument near An Thoi.

Back in Cambodia, the DFKSI's Sokunmealea says that despite the lack of support from

the government, her movement will keep calling for the island's return.

"Unless we get it back we will continue to protest and demand forever,"

she says.

But after a century-and-a-half of unsuccessful protest, the return of the ice-cream

beach paradise of "Koh Tral" appears a more wistful notion than ever.


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