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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Cambodia's troublesome borders

Cambodia's troublesome borders
By Verghese Mathews

Just last week the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first ever Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, and separately remembered the 30th anniversary of the arrival in Phnom Penh of the Khmer Rouge. Both, in retrospect, were audacious events; both had outrageously held out promises of hope at a time when such hope was at a premium. Neither delivered.

Bandung collapsed within a decade, though it arguably was a catalyst in the subsequent formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Khmer Rouge effectively held demonic control of a dehumanized people for all of three years, eight months and 20 days - but managed within that short span to unleash an unprecedented and unimaginable brutality on a gentle land.

One person who would have vivid memories of both events is former Cambodian monarch Norodom Sihanouk, who now goes by the revered title Father-King.

Sihanouk, 33 years old at the time of the first Bandung summit, had a couple of years earlier secured Cambodia's independence from the mighty French. He will remember it was at Bandung that he was introduced to and became a life-long friend and admirer of then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and, subsequently, of succeeding Chinese leaders.

That relationship probably saved Sihanouk's life when he became a virtual prisoner in his palace during the Khmer Rouge regime. Like other Cambodian families, Sihanouk lost several of his children to the brutality inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. In 1979, the Chinese airlifted Sihanouk and the surviving members of the royal family to Beijing just before the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia began.

Sihanouk is now 82, and far less healthy, with multiple medical problems, such as cancer. According to the latest report, posted on May 1 on the royal website, "recent follow-up showed progression of a tumor [related to a gastric lymphoma]. Another course of chemotherapy [has been] suggested."

Still, there is the old fire in his belly. Nobody writes Sihanouk off. He remains an extraordinary patriot and a force to contend with in Cambodian politics.

Since January this year he has traveled overseas - initially for his regular medical treatments, but he stayed on as an open expression of his unhappiness with political developments at home. One long-standing peeve of his has been the question of Cambodia's territorial integrity; in particular, the bilateral border agreements signed with Vietnam at the time of its occupation of Cambodia.

Sihanouk never recognized those agreements. Neither have several other groups, including the royalists and the Cambodian diaspora.

On March 31, Sihanouk unexpectedly wrote an open letter in French accusing Thailand, Vietnam and Laos of continuing "to nibble away little by little the villages, lands, seas, and islands belonging to Cambodia, an ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] member just like you".

In an unofficial English translation of the letter Sihanouk declared that, "The nation, the people and the state of Cambodia (Kampuchea) would not accept to lose (unfairly and illegally to your unjustifiable gain) even one square meter, one-tenth of a square meter, or a square centimeter of her (land and maritime) territorial integrity, which she owned in all legality and legitimacy as clearly indicated in the military maps produced by the USA (your friends, an ex-enemy of Norodom Sihanouk). These are maps produced between 1963 (one year after the equitable verdict on Preah Vihear by the Hague International Court of Justice) and 1969 (one year before the anti-constitutional putsch by Lon Nol, Sirik Matak and co, the satellites of Uncle Sam and President Richard Nixon)."

Sihanouk went on, in the same tone, to point out that numerous villages belonging to poor Khmer people living well within Cambodia during his reign (1955-1969) now find themselves located in Vietnamese territory.

"Everyone knows that the new maritime borders delimitation between Cambodia and Thailand on one hand, and between Cambodia and Vietnam on the other hand, gave enormous advantages, in terms of seas and islands, to these two large neighbors with respect to what these two large neighbors owned up to 1969."

Sihanouk called on his neighbors to respect international law, the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, and the UN Charter, "by accepting, with a fair play which will avoid you dishonor, to surrender to the current Cambodia the villages, lands, seas, and islands that you had stolen and took away from us".

Sihanouk invited Thailand, Vietnam and Laos to join Cambodia "with an open heart, and as soon as possible" to jointly verify "kilometer by kilometer, on the ground and on the spot of the delimitation of our common borders found in the US geographic maps produced by Washington DC between 1963 and 1969".

The stridency in Sihanouk's letter may have surprised many, as he is by nature and reputation extremely polite and ever conscious of proper protocol. Writing in his personal capacity, as an ordinary citizen, he let his emotions flow.

Territorial integrity and border encroachment remain a sensitive issue in Cambodia's relations with its neighbors and in domestic Cambodian politics. Sihanouk has himself been a severe critic of the border agreements reached between Cambodia and its neighbors during the 1979 to 1991 period of the Vietnamese occupation.

Sihanouk is not alone in this. The Paris-based Cambodian Border Committee (CBC), which is dedicated to the return of territory lost during the Vietnamese occupation, has outlined the most significant border agreements as:

The Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation Treaty dated February 18, 1979: valid for a period of 25 years, and [which] will tacitly be renewed every 10 years if one of the two contracting parties does not notify in writing to the other party its desire to repeal it one year before its expiration date; the agreement on the maritime zone, also known as the Historical Waters Agreement, dated July 7, 1982, which recognized both the SRV [Socialist Republic of Vietnam] annexation of many Cambodian islands, along with a considerable portion (30,000 square kilometers) of its sea water; the Agreement on the Border Statute and the Treaty on the Principle of Resolution of Borders Issues, dated July 20, 1983, which recognized the free crossing of the Cambodian border and the surge of Vietnamese settlers into Cambodia, along with a new border delineation; the Treaty on the Border Delimitation, dated December 27, 1985, which recognized new settlements (on the demarcation) of land borders between the two countries from north to the south along an overall border length of 1,230km - settlements imposed by Vietnam in accordance to the agreements with the PRK [People's Republic of Kampuchea] dated July 20, 1983, July 13, 1984, and November 6, 1984.

Within Cambodia, Sihanouk's letter accelerated the implementation of an agreement that had earlier been reached between the dominant Cambodian People's Party of Hun Sen and the royalist Funcinpec Party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh to form a seven-member Supreme National Council on Border Issues to resolve the long-standing and acutely sensitive, emotional issue.

Each of the three political parties, including the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, has nominated a member to the national council, as have the Senate, the National Assembly and the government. Cambodia's current King Norodom Sihamoni had the prerogative of appointing the chairman, and in the event he invited his father, Sihanouk, who accepted. The king said that Sihanouk, in his sunset years, wished "to serve the nation and the people in the framework of his mission to protect the kingdom's territorial integrity".

It is more than likely that King Sihamoni had the tacit understanding of Hun Sen and Ranariddh in the offer. A long-time observer privately suggested that since Sihanouk has been highly critical of an existing border committee of officials, appointing him to chair the new supra body was one way of resolving the problem.

Sihanouk has mighty problems ahead of him. He intends to meet with all council members soon after his return to Phnom Penh - members who are clearly divided down the middle with some supporting the validity of the agreements reached during the Vietnamese occupation and others rejecting it outright and demanding demarcation on the basis of detailed maps issued by the US in the 1960s.

The Cambodians need to speak with one voice, otherwise their cause is lost even before the negotiations begin. A far greater problem for Sihanouk will be with the neighbors whose feathers he has already ruffled with his open letter. Emotions must necessarily give way to hard facts, legitimate documents and much patience and tolerance.

Notwithstanding his well-honed skills, his subtle persuasiveness and his renowned charm, Sihanouk has a mammoth problem ahead. The negotiations could drag and perhaps take more years than Sihanouk can spare.

SUBMITTED BY: Verghese Mathews
Email: math....@iseas.edu.sg

4 May 2005

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