In a surprise move, on August 11 Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered thousands of troops to be deployed, while giving an ultimatum to Laos to withdraw its troops from Cambodian territory within six days.
One day later, Mr Hun Sen flew to Vientiane to talk directly with Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith.
After their talks, Laos agreed to withdraw its troops the following day and Cambodia agreed to send its troops back to their barracks on the same day.
“Frankly, Cambodia has the legitimate right to build roads along its border. However, to avoid conflict, I decided to issue an order for our military engineering to pause their works…and I asked HE Thongloun Sisoulith to withdraw Lao troops,” said Mr Hun Sen at a graduation ceremony for students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh on August 14.
The Cambodian government views its approach to the dispute as a great success, through the exercise of smart and flexible diplomacy in achieving an objective without resorting to force.
But the debates on the Cambodia-Laos border tensions have been unfortunately polarised and somehow politicised. There are two camps in the debate – the positive and negative camps.
For the positive team, they praise the government’s efforts and strategy in winning without using force. Sok Touch, the president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, in his interview with Fresh News, said that “peaceful settlement of the dispute” and “mutual respect of each other’s sovereignty” are possible thanks to the political will and efforts of the two prime ministers.
He urged other countries to follow the model of dispute settlement between Cambodia Laos.
For the negative team, they regard the event as a reflection of Cambodia’s domestic politics.
Cambodian American scholar Sophal Ear, lecturing at the Occidental College in the US, told the Asia Times website that it was a “nice patriotic feel-good win” for Mr Hun Sen as his party is galvanising support for next year’s election.
Journalist Luke Hunt wrote in The Diplomat: “As Cambodia moves into elections next year, Hun Sen and his government will not shy away from flexing their muscles at home and abroad on issues that they deem central to a victory at the polls.”
Cambodian American Sourn Seregy Ratha, the head of the Khmer Power Party, was arrested because of his Facebook comments, perceived by the government to be seriously damaging to the reputation and dignity of the Cambodian armed forces.
These comments have irked Cambodian leaders. Mr Hun Sen stated: “Laos invaded Cambodia. You cannot say it is a way for the CPP to get votes. We cannot accept this.
“Anyone who makes comments on this has to be responsible to the law.”
Looking at the facts on the ground, we can draw several observations. First, the border tension between the two countries has lasted since February when Lao soldiers reportedly moved into Cambodian territory in Siem Pang district in Stung Treng province in a protest against Cambodia’s plan to construct a road along the border.
The Cambodian side has tried to explain Laos that the road construction plan was in Cambodian territory. But Laos was not convinced. Cambodia later decided to postpone the construction in order to avoid unnecessary tension and conflict.
Second, a series of bilateral negotiation were conducted to reduce the tension and manage the difference. But these rounds of quiet, shuttle diplomacy did not bear fruit.
Cambodia ran out of patience and adopted a direct confrontation on August 11 when Mr Hun Sen angrily said his Lao friend had not replied to his letter.
“I sent them a letter. I have not received a reply yet,” he said. “I am conveying a message from here to HE Thongloun Sisoulith, Prime Minister of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, to withdraw Lao troops from Cambodian territory unconditionally. “The ultimatum will be on 17 August, or six days from today,” he said.
In a letter sent to his Lao counterpart dated August 2, Mr Hun Sen clarified Cambodia’s position regarding the border demarcation, which is based on the Bonne Map 1/100.000 produced by France and previous bilateral agreements.
The letter explained to Laos that O’Tangav and O’Alay belonged to Cambodia. The presence of Lao troops in these regions violated Cambodia’s territorial integrity. It asked that Laos withdraw its troops.
Third, an urgent and tough measure was adopted. Mr Hun Sen sent thousands of troops to the border area to put pressure on Laos to come to an agreement. It does not mean that Cambodia showed any weakness or bowed to Laos.
The leverage of negotiation is high once there is a strong force on the ground.
Based on these facts, Cambodia does not have any intention to either stir or prolong the border dispute and tension with Laos.
It is oversimplified arguing that the border tension with Laos will lead to more votes for the Cambodian People’s Party in next year election. Accusing the government of using border disputes for political gain at home does not strengthen but weaken Cambodian negotiation position and leverage.