Amid Border Tension, Officials Told to Shape Up

Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Tuesday handed down a list of instructions to government officials working along the country’s border with Vietnam to help tamp down newly inflamed tensions along disputed stretches of the frontier, including an order to stop cutting informal deals with their Vietnamese counterparts.

The meeting in Phnom Penh with officials from the border provinces follows a series of trips by opposition CNRP lawmakers to parts of the border where locals have accused Vietnam of encroachment. Focused on areas where the border is still poorly demarcated, the trips have forced the government’s hand in taking a tougher public stand toward Hanoi.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng, right, and border affairs chief Var Kimhong gesture during a meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday with government officials from the provinces bordering Vietnam. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Interior Minister Sar Kheng, right, and border affairs chief Var Kimhong gesture during a meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday with government officials from the provinces bordering Vietnam. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Kheng acknowledged the difficulty of border negotiations with Vietnam to the roughly 400 officials in attendance—from border police to provincial governors.

“Solving border issues is complicated and requires patience and struggle,” he said. “Such a complex problem cannot be solved like some parties want, but only if both sides agree with each other. We are working hard to solve some huge problems with Vietnam, and there are still some problems that have not been solved.”

In the meantime, Mr. Kheng said, local officials should stick to some basic rules: First and foremost, stop negotiating borderlines on their own with “friends” from Vietnam.

“There have been some locals, when their friends come to ask for an agreement, in some places they have done it,” he said. “But we cannot do whatever we want. We have to ask the national level, otherwise it will impact the relationship.”

The minister also ordered officials to make sure landowners along the border stop renting their property to Vietnamese nationals living on the other side, and that no changes be made to stretches still missing border markers.

“Houses and rice fields and farms need to stay as they are,” he said. “Do not expand houses or clear forests. Stop building infrastructure and buildings that will affect the situation.”

The minister told officials to shut down all informal corridors along the border and arrest anyone who still tries to cross illegally.

Wherever boundary disputes flare up, he said, “first, our authorities stationed in the area must communicate immediately with Vietnam to stop it; second, they have to send a report up the chain of command, to the commune, the district and the province, immediately.”

The meeting occasionally grew heated, however, particularly between Cambodia’s minister in charge of border affairs, Var Kimhong, and some frustrated officials.

Svay Rieng provincial governor Chieng Am complained about not being told exactly what areas along the border belonged to Cambodia.

Mr. Kimhong said it was the governor’s own fault for shirking his duties as the head of his province’s own border committee.

“You forget about the prime minister’s decision creating the border sub-committees,” Mr. Kimhong said, raising his voice. “You are the president of that committee, and you do not do it.”

In a related development, National Assembly president Heng Samrin has refused to endorse a letter from the CNRP asking the government to suspend its work demarcating the border until after the next general election in 2018.

“Samdech Heng Samrin, president of the National Assembly, cannot sign this request because the National Assembly has decided to let the Royal Government create the National Border Committee,” Leng Peng Long, the Assembly’s general secretary, wrote in his reply to the CNRP Tuesday.

Um Sam An said he and 10 fellow opposition lawmakers made the request in hopes that the coming elections would deliver power to a new party more capable of handling the issue. He accused the CPP of trying to demarcate the border with a “fake” map provided by Vietnam and of letting Hanoi train the Cambodians doing the work.

Mr. Sam An said Mr. Samrin’s refusal to endorse their request may also have violated Article 96 of the Constitution, which allows any Assembly member to pose questions to the government.

“We will talk with the other lawmakers about whether to ask the Constitutional Council of Cambodia to interpret Article 96,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)

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