Concerns Mounting over Government Handling of Vietnamese Border Demarcation

The National Assembly on Nov. 2 approved a draft law pertaining to the demarcation of Cambodia's border with Vietnam, but critics have voiced concerns over the one-party nature of the legislature.
  • Phoung Vantha and Mao Sopha
  • November 3, 2020 10:22 AM

As the government seeks to officially demarcate large parts of the Cambodia-Vietnam border, critics have voiced concerns over the government’s interests and lack of political accountability.

PHNOM PENH--The National Assembly on Nov. 2 approved a draft law that would confirm the demarcation protocols used for the border between Cambodia and Vietnam.The Khan Seima Protocol and the demarcation of the land border between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam would ratify the 1985 land boundary treaty and the 2005 supplementary treaty between the two countries.

This comes after months of upheaval over the Cambodia-Vietnam border that has stoked tensions between the government and activists, with the latter claiming the former is giving Cambodian land away to Vietnam.

In response to the National Assembly’s approval of the draft law, the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) on Nov. 3 issued a statement expressing grave concerns over the proposed demarcation protocols and the means through which they were chosen.

“The country’s current political situation, in which Cambodia does not yet have national unity and, with the National Assembly ruled by a single party, the parliamentarians should not ratify a treaty or agreement on border issues,” it said.

The GDP requested that the National Assembly delay the discussion ratification of the draft law and urged parliamentarians to hold a national referendum on the situation. The demarcation of the border, the GDP said, should be delayed until multiple parties are represented in the National Assembly.

“When the process can be transparent and inclusive, [i]t may include a referendum on the treaty,” explained Yeng Virak, president of the GDP. “Yes, we believe the next election will result in more representation of other parties in the [National Assembly] so, instead of ratifying this, they should give priority to improving democratic process and ensuring the next elections will be free and fair.”

Noting that the border issue is one of national interest and has long caused political turmoil, Virak argued that resolutions to this particular problem ought to be done in compliance with the Constitution and added that any treaty or agreement that is incompatible with Cambodia’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, neutrality and national unity of the Kingdom of Cambodia will later be annulled.

“The issue of the Cambodia-Vietnam border has been very sensitive,” he continued. “It has been one of major election campaign issues.”

“The government never gives a chance to people, especially its opponents to argue [for] another way and oftentimes, the criminalization of dissenting voices on the issue has been used by the government,” Virak said.

Government Pushing Ahead with Border Demarcation


As it stands, all 116 Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers voted to pass the draft law on Nov. 2, meaning that the draft law will now make its way to the Senate where it will likely receive a similar level of approval given the ruling party’s control over both houses and all bodies of government.  

Secretary-General of the National Assembly Leng Peng Long said that the draft law on the approval of the protocol and land border between Cambodia and Vietnam is a law that allows using the 1:25,000 scale maps unveiled by the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee in August 2020.

Peng Long explained that although a new map was signed and approved by the committee, it must pass the National Assembly and the Senate before the King can issue the Royal Kram to promulgate it, so the maps can be used.

The new map will leave roughly 16 percent of the 1,270 kilometer border between Cambodia and Vietnam disputed, but the government’s demarcation plans have caused a furor among communities living along the border who claim they are losing land to the Vietnamese.

Rong Chhun, a leading unionist and former member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, had taken a team to Tbong Khmum Province to inspect the border in July 2020, where communities living between border posts 114 and 119 complained of land lost under the new border demarcation plans.

Chhun then appeared on Radio Free Asia on July 31, where he gave an interview about his findings and “irregularities” along the border. The same day, the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee issued a statement claiming everything that Chhun had reported as false and that no land had been lost to Vietnam in the demarcation process.

Later that night, he was arrested and then the following day he was charged with incitement to cause serious social unrest.

A Crackdown on Critics

This in itself then prompted weeks of protests as civil society organizations, activists, environmentalists and former opposition party supporters rallied to demand Chhun’s release. The authorities responded by arresting at least 14 people between Chhun’s arrest on July 31 and Sept. 9, but the crackdown against critics has continued at much the same pace since then.

While Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that he would have anyone criticizing the government’s handling of the border issue arrested, various human rights experts working with the UN wrote to Cambodian Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn on Aug. 18 to express concerns over Chhun’s arrest. Chiefly, they wrote, the concerns stemmed from the fact that the arrest came without a warrant, was made in response to Chhun exercising his right to free speech and that neither Chhun’s actions nor his words constituted a crime.

It wasn’t until Oct. 30 that the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the UN, An Sokkhoeurn, replied to confirm that Chhun had been arrested without a warrant, but that one had been acquired retrospectively by an investigating judge the following day. Sokkhoeurn’s letter went on to say that Chhun’s actions were “deceitful” and sought “to confuse national and international opinions as well as to cause social chaos.”

Chhun, along with a number of activists who had protested against his arrest, remain in jail despite the national and international calls for their release.

A Divisive Issue

Joining the call against the government’s plans to move ahead with the demarcation process that Chhun and others had expressed concern over was the former opposition party. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017—issued a statement on Nov. 2, 2020 calling for the draft law on the border demarcation to be withdrawn.

“The CNRP declares absolute rejection of the draft law confirming the demarcation protocol and the establishment land boundaries between Cambodia and Vietnam,” the statement read, adding that the government is handing Cambodian land to Vietnam illegally.

Former CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An said that the approval of this draft law by the one-party National Assembly resulted from a rigged election and is “just a formality” that will have to be annulled later.

Sam An went on to say that the border treaties of 1985 was annulled by the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991, but gave no indication as to how the border issue should be solved in Cambodia’s current political situation.

In response, the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee said that border demarcation and new mapping do not cause Cambodia to lose land to Vietnam.

Koy Pisey, vice chairwoman of the committee said that of the nine Cambodian provinces bordering Vietnam, three—Prey Veng, Kratie and Tbong Khmum—have been completely demarcated.

The other six provinces, she said, had not been completed yet, including Kandal, Takeo, Svay Rieng, Kampot, Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces.

She complained that critics never appreciate what the government does for the nation.

“The accusations is baseless, they [critics] are just talking,” she said. “This is a historic achievement for Cambodia, which has the right and capacity to build our own borders, which will be inherited for future generations.”

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