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Cambodia-Vietnam Border Spat Reveals Shifting Alliances

Va Sonyka and Donald Lee / Khmer Times Share:
Monitors inspect trenches dug in the disputed boundary area alongside Vietnam in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadav district. Photo: Courtesy Adhoc

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – As tension rises along an undemarcated border section with Vietnam in Ratanakkiri province, analysts say the government’s newfound toughness against Hanoi reflects rising Chinese influence here.

They also say it shows that the ruling Cambodia People’s Party needs to win political points by responding  to rising anger over perceived encroachment on Cambodian soil by Vietnam. 

“The voice of the people who protest to the government to take care of the Vietnamese border issues seems to have resonated with the ruling party,” said Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank.

The recent flare up centers on Vietnamese-dug trenches and ponds on what ethnic Jarai residents in Ratanakkiri province say is Cambodian land.

Nearly 300 ethnic Jarai villagers have filed a complaint to the Ministry of the Interior and the National Assembly about these wells and trenches, rights group Adhoc said. They also asked that three border police officials be reprimanded and removed from their posts for allowing trenches to be dug near Jarai villages in the province.

Adhoc said the nine ponds and trenches dug by the Vietnamese could result in a loss of territory along the disputed border. 

“Cambodia loses more land in the end because of the trench locations and because the demarcation process has not been finished,” Adhoc representative Chhay Thi told Khmer Times.“The trenches were dug purposefully so that the demarcation process would be altered,” Mr. Thi said. 

After three more trenches in Ratanakkiri province were discovered last week, the Foreign Affairs Ministry demanded that the Vietnamese government comply with previous treaties signed between the two countries. 

It sent a harsh rebuke to the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh. In two diplomatic memos, the ministry stressed that Prime Minister Hun Sen  already had conversations with the Politburo in Vietnam about the issue.

Thr prime minister “demanded” during high level talks with the Vietnamese Politburo that “pending the demarcation of the border, the areas which have not been demarcated should not be changed,” a note said Friday.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue  Party – which often accuses the ruling party of allowing Vietnam to infringe on the Kingdom’s – applauded the move.  

China vs. Vietnam?

As the ruling party becomes less dependent on Vietnam for investment and military aid, the government can respond to public clamor about Vietnamese encroachment on the Kingdom’s territory, they said. 

“China is a big factor in Cambodia’s current relations with Vietnam,” Mr. Virak said. “It’s been a long time since the 1979 occupation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army, and its influence in the Kingdom is waning.”

Mr. Virak believes a shift in alliances could occur in this generation.

“Vietnam still has major influence on the Cambodian military,” he continued. “This sector is entirely in its control despite aid granted by other countries like China.” 

“But China has full influence on Cambodia’s economy – it pours in money into the country every year,” he said.

China now is Cambodia’s largest source of aid, investment and tourists. Cambodia’s hydroelectric dams, half of its major bridges, major road reconstruction projects and Mr. Hun Sen’s office complex, the Peace Palace, have all been built with Chinese grants or soft loans. 

Mr. Virak said there was a danger of Cambodia becoming a pawn “in a chess match in a regional power conflict.”
 

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