kompong krasaing village, Takeo province – For 10 years, Major Chea Samorn and his border police have waded across the flood plains here in this sleepy southeast corner of Cambodia, ousting farmers from Vietnam who settle on plots of land considered off limits.
But two weeks ago, the major said he took a group of men to a plot of land where farmers were preparing to grow rice protected by Vietnamese armed civil guards.
It was a tense standoff, he recalled Tuesday at a border checkpoint building here in Borei Cholsar district. He said 20 armed Cambodians and 50 armed Vietnamese stared at each other, each group on territory clearly their own.
In the middle, on a disputed 20-meter-wide strip of land, were a group of Vietnamese farmers, he said. Cambodian authorities regard the land as off limits until several disputed border markers can be clearly defined through negotiation.
“When [the farmers] planted rice during the daytime, we usually went there and destroyed the seedlings,” Chea Samorn said. “But this year the Vietnamese farmers were protected by armed militiamen.”
Farmers planting rice in this disputed zone and others like it are not uncommon. But a situation involving a stare down between armed men from neighboring countries are a cause for concern. Local officials have seen bloodshed along the border in the past, and authorities in Phnom Penh are often nettled by government opponents about being weak on territorial issues in border areas such as this.
Chea Samorn and his men waited while he gave instructions to hold fire. The standoff lasted four hours, until someone fired a shot into the air, the major said.
“One of the [Vietnamese] militiamen triggered a rifle into the air, and then they retreated,” Chea Samorn claimed. “[But] we followed orders not to have armed clashes.”
After the militiamen retreated, the farmers scattered and another border flareup was extinguished, at least temporarily.
At first glance, the incident might seem out of place here, where farmers stoop over vast seas of green paddies and fishermen paddle by on wooden boats, drawing nets from a muddy canal that meanders between the two countries. The serenity here, though, can be misleading, and there is an undercurrent of tension over disputed borders, Cambodian officials say. Coupled with a palpable anti-Vietnamese nationalism on the Cambodian side, tense situations are potentially perilous. In 1997, an “armed clash” led to one Vietnamese death, Chea Samorn said.
That confrontation involved armed units from each country. Chea Samorn claimed the Vietnamese shot first and hit one of the border guards in the chest. Miraculously, the bullet ricocheted off the man’s munitions belt and he was not injured, Chea Samorn said. Cambodians then shot dead the assailant, he said.
In 1999, seven Vietnamese and 16 Cambodians were killed because of land disagreements along the roughly 650-km shared border, according to figures released last week by the Ministry of Interior.
Newspapers regularly critical of the government such as Samleng Yuvachon Khmer (Voice of Khmer Youth) label Phnom Penh leaders as soft on issues concerning “Yuon,” a derogatory term for Vietnamese. An article in the paper’s Feb 13-14 edition described the dominant CPP as the “Yuon’s puppet,” claiming the party avoided responsibility “over Yuon robbing Khmer land” (page 1). In June, a student demonstration over border encroachment was quashed by police.
The most recent standoff occurred because Vietnamese families were planning to farm rice on a “neutral” zone between the two countries. According to Chea Samorn, the zone is a 25-meter-wide stretch of land, 2-km long, between disputed border markers 100 and 102.
Chea Samorn said the Vietnamese had raised dikes in preparation for the growing season and were “planning to plant rice,” while under guard. Seeing this, the new district chief here, Kim Meth, ordered an increase in patrols to “take action” against the farmers.
Kim Meth has been on the job in Borei Cholsar district barely one month and avoided discussing the incident with reporters Tuesday. “The problem has been solved already,” he said, adding that the farmers had left the disputed area.
He said “big” problems were sent to provincial authorities and then on to the border commission in Phnom Penh. He said this problem was small, even though it had been reported to the provincial governor and the border commission.
He refused to confirm details of how many troops, families or hectares were involved and refused to escort reporters to the site of the standoff 2 km away. District officials, however, said there were 12 ethnic Vietnamese families on 14 hectares of land in the disputed area.
Some of the information provided by Chea Samorn surprised officials in Phnom Penh, because the incident was reported to the border commission without mentioning the shot being fired.
“There is no mention of the shot in the report,” said Var Kim Hong, chairman of the national border commission. “We try to avoid those types of situations.”
Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung was also surprised to hear a shot had been fired. “We haven’t heard about this,” he said Tuesday.
He said, though, that if a shot was indeed fired it would be a serious matter.
The border commission will not be able to send a team to Takeo until other border matters are solved in Laos, Var Kim Hong said. Nguyen Duy Hung said there had been talks last month. Neither the ambassador nor the border commission chair knew when the countries’ border experts would next meet again.
Meanwhile, local officials are bracing for periodic confrontations.
“Disputes usually occur every year,” Takeo Governor Kep Chuktema said by telephone Tuesday.
But he called the recent armed standoff here a “very big” matter.
“A morning stand-off for hours [recently] took place,” he said. “The problem is not resolved.”