romeas hek district, Svay Rieng province – To visit Chea Kong’s farmhouse, permission is required from Vietnamese border guards at least one week in advance of an intended arrival.
But if you’re in a hurry, there is nothing to stop Chea Kong or his Cambodian neighbors from tramping the 50 meters or so out of their no man’s land of rice paddies at this disputed section of the Cambodian border.
All the land here was Cambodian territory, says Chea Kong, whose sweeping claims include the well-tended Vietnamese cashew nut and sugarcane plantations some 2 km to the east.
But it’s political guesswork to define the Cambodian border in this portion of Svay Rieng, he and other locals say.
The invisible boundary depends mostly on the territorial imagination of neighboring Vietnam and for that reason, locals say, the Sam Rainsy Party has found fertile soil in what was once the provincial roots of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.
“We have suffered,” says Chea Kong, squatting on a Cambodian paddy dike on the edge of the frontier limbo where his home is located.
“The Vietnamese force us out and tell us to stop growing rice and to stop building,” Chea Kong said.
He and nine other families live in six farmhouses in the area border officials refer to as a “White Area;” a 12-km swath of paddies that are now the disputed buffer territory between both countries.
But families and villagers here in Doung commune say there is no dispute, this land is theirs.
“In 1993, I lost 2.5 hectares. Now I only have a small amount of rice paddy left,” said local farmer Meas Toek, 40.
“At that time I fought with the Vietnamese border police after they kicked away my rice. I fought them even though they had batons,” Meas Toek said.
Vietnamese border police patrol the “White Area,” and that is one of many reasons why promises to solve border issues have rallied residents behind the Sam Rainsy Party for the July 27 election.
“I believe Sam Rainsy can take the land back 100 percent because he has come here and he knows the real problem and the real situation,” said 60-year-old Chhum Eat.
Chhum Eat claims to have studied as a teenager in a Cambodian Buddhist pagoda that, if still standing today, would be deep inside what is now Vietnamese territory.
“This is not normal. People here will love anyone who will take back our land,” said Chhum Eat. “I am not afraid to tell that truth that Vietnam took our land.”
Eam Chum, 33, says he has less than a hectare of rice paddy left to cultivate after losing 2 hectares when Vietnamese authorities claimed his border property in the early 1990s.
“It was my land for generations,” said Eam Chum, adding that he too believes the opposition is the only party serious about tackling the border dispute.
Though Funcinpec’s pre-election platform has vowed a new ministry of immigration and a tough stance on border encroachment, villagers said the royalist message seems strong only in Phnom Penh.
Funcinpec’s Princess Norodom Vacheara visited the disputed area in June 2002, but little else has followed, they said.
Villagers were reluctant to speak about the ruling CPP’s seeming inability to solve border disputes in Svay Rieng, Prey Veng and Kompong Cham, the eastern provinces that gave birth to the current ruling party and where many of the top CPP leaders were born and raised.
“That’s a political issue, I don’t want to talk about it,” said Chhum Eat, adding that opposition officials in Phnom Penh seem more concerned with border problems than Svay Rieng’s own provincial officials.
It’s a different, yet similar, story in neighboring Prey Veng province, in the heart of the CPP stronghold of Kamchay Mear district, where few residents believe the Sam Rainsy Party can solve their “White Area” disputes with Vietnam.
Red earth roads cut the scrub forests in the far east of the district, but the Cambodian villagers lining these border pathways are prevented from clearing and cultivating the land around their homes.
Armed Vietnamese police patrol through the disputed area at least once a week to check that there is no new Cambodian construction, said Kuon Pov, 42, a resident of Anlong Chrey village.
“We are very angry about the problem, but what can we do? Vietnam threatens and intimidates us, but they never kill us like Pol Pot,” she said.
Cambodian border police officer Han Theng said the construction ban is part of an agreement with Vietnam to halt further development of the border until its ownership is settled.
Though the ban has inflamed local feelings, residents believe that if the powerful CPP can’t solve the problem, nobody can.
“Whoever is in power, I don’t think Vietnam will give the land,” said 22-year-old Chun Bunna, a CPP supporter.
Both Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec campaigners have brought their get-tough message on border incursion to Kamchay Mear district. But the tough, anti-Vietnamese rhetoric spouted in Phnom Penh could bring conflict back to these borders, Chun Bunna said.
“The CPP have the solution to solve the border problem peacefully…but I am afraid Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party could cause fighting with Vietnam,” Chun Bunna said. “We can only solve this problem with Asean involvement.”
In 1996, then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh was warned by the CPP that his war of words with Hanoi over the eastern border could jeopardize peace with Vietnam.
The Funcinpec-CPP dispute over Prince Ranariddh’s handling of the border issue—the prince had called Vietnamese border encroachment a “full invasion”—launched the first wave of rumors that violence would break out between the uneasy partners.
But in Svay Rieng province last week, rice farmer Meas Toek said he didn’t care if the solution to solving the border issue involved conflict with Cambodia’s larger neighbor.
“I am not afraid of the dispute. If I am afraid, I will die anyway because I have no land,” Meas Toek said.