Irredentism is a political behavior, a very dangerous one. It is a popular common way to express a claim to adjacent territories on the grounds of historical or ethnic association. Irredentist policies are usually advocated by extreme-nationalist movements. They use the legal and historical ignorance of ordinary people to claim rights that do not exist anymore. It is a form of political demagogy that can win votes in elections but creates profound disturbances to public order because such claims deeply divide the population.
The way politicians use to talk about the past is always controversial if they do not scrupulously respect the facts and their legal consequences. And the question of territorial property is an extremely sensitive subject, especially when it becomes a subject of controversy. It creates deep and dangerous divisions for the public peace.
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The issue of Koh Trial Island is a legacy of the past one has to deal carefully with. It is the legacy of the French colonial power. On January 31, 1939, the Governor General of Indochina, Jules Brévié, decided to transfer the administration of the island to Cochin-China. This transfer was the consequence of a more global decision to establish in the Gulf of Thailand a line dividing the islands between Cambodia and Cochin-China, a French colony and not a Protectorate like Cambodia. This dividing line now bears the name of Brévié Line.
The irredentist movements use a phrase from the 1939 document to consider that the question of ownership of the Koh Tral Island remains open. This sentence is worded as follows:
Il est bien entendu qu’il ne s’agit là que de l’administration et de la police, et que la question de la dépendance territoriale de ces îles reste entièrement réservée. (Translation: It is understood that this is only the administration and the police, and that the question of the territorial dependence of these islands remains entirely reserved.).
But the historical reality makes it necessary to note that the French colonial power treated this decision as a true transfer of sovereignty since it made a transfer to a territory that was part of the national French territory. During the reunification of Vietnam in 1949, within the colonial framework of the French Union, the island became an integral part of the Vietnamese territory. It was a legal confirmation by France that the Brévié Line was far more than an administrative division. It was an international maritime division, despite many protests by Cambodia.
When Cambodia won independence in 1953 and regained full sovereignty, it is the territorial situation from which it inherited. Cambodia’s strongly argued protest will do nothing about it, including at the 1954 Geneva Conference, which confirmed the country’s independence in the 1953 borders. These are undisputable facts.
What does international law say? There is one principle that Cambodia used to justify its sovereignty over the Preah Vihear temple in 1962. This principle, formulated in Latin under the terms “Uti possidetis”, asserts the inviolability of the boundaries as they existed at the time of national independence. According to this principle, in 1964, Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk deposited at the United Nations the map recognizing the Brévié line as the international maritime boundary between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Since then, whith the exception of the Khmer Republic, all the following regimes after the 1970 Coup, recognized the Brévié Line. Even the Pol Pot regime, which published a map with the Brévié Line and with the Koh Tral Island on the Vietnamese side (Black book. Facts and evidence of acts of aggression and annexation of Vietnam against Kampuchea, p.41).
The respect of the “Uti Possidetis” principle was again recognized by the Kingdom of Cambodia in 2005 and it was recalled by Samdech Techo Hun Sen in a solemn address to the National Assembly on August 9, 2012.
To call into question a principle of international law that Cambodia respects and whose respect for it has been confirmed by formal positions expressed in 1964, 2005 and 2012 is to question violently a fundamental point of Cambodia’s national and foreign policy. This is without a doubt an attitude that violates the necessary national consensus. This challenge is likely to create confusion in people’s minds and to disturb public order.
When a political party, the Khmer Rise Party or any other party, resorts to such irredentist processes, it sinks into the worst nationalism. This nationalism calls into question the internal peace, but also the external peace. And the President of the Royal Academy, His Excellency Sok Touch was right to denounce a campaign on a subject like this. We must remember the lessons of history. Irredentist campaigns when they dominated the political life of a country have always led to war. The Pol Pot’s irredentism on Kampuchea Krom led to the war with Vietnam.
We are all shocked when we walk on the Phnom Bokor and we see, in front of us, this island so close to the Cambodian territory and which however does not belong to Cambodia. This island was stolen from Cambodia. Not by the Vietnamese but by colonial France. History is made everywhere in the world of such aberrations that nothing can correct. We must accept it. Peace is at this price.