Cambodia and Vietnam plan to ask France to draw up a new version of a map the countries’ governments have been using to demarcate their long-disputed border, casting fresh doubts on the work that has been done with the map currently in use.
Cambodia’s Constitution demands that the so-called Bonne map, drawn at a scale of 1:100,000, be used to demarcate the border, a political tinderbox that has landed two opposition lawmakers lengthy prison sentences in the past few months.
In a speech last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged that the government was actually demarcating the border with a 1:50,000-scale map that Cambodia created with Vietnam based on the Bonne map, but using the more modern Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) method.
Cambodia now wants France to make its own version of a 1:50,000-scale map—the same scale as the current UTM map—for the neighbors to use.
The prime minister announced the decision in a post to his Facebook page on Wednesday evening after a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in Siem Reap City earlier in the day.
“Regarding border affairs, the two prime ministers agreed with each other to prepare a joint letter to France in order to request that experts transfer [the map] from 1:100,000 to 1:50,000,” the post says.
It adds that the prime minister assigned Long Visalo, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to work with Vietnam on drafting the request.
The post did not explain why the countries were making the request now, after using their own UTM map for years.
Mr. Visalo could not be reached. Var Kimhong, who co-chairs the Cambodia-Vietnam joint border committee and has been heavily involved in the controversy over the maps, referred questions back to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. A spokesman for the ministry did not reply to a request for comment.
The French Embassy in Phnom Penh said it had no comment on the matter.
In his speech last year, Mr. Hun Sen insisted that its UTM map was carefully copied from the Bonne map and complied with the Constitution because it was part of a 2005 supplemental treaty with Vietnam approved by the National Assembly and signed by the king. But the supplement was based on a 1985 treaty that many consider illegal because it was signed during Vietnam’s decadelong occupation of Cambodia.
The CNRP has often stoked fears that the government is conceding swaths of land along the border to Vietnam in the shadows of an opaque demarcation process, accusations to which the government has proven especially sensitive.
Opposition lawmaker Um Sam An, who called the government’s use of the UTM map unconstitutional, was convicted of incitement earlier this year and handed a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence. Hong Sok Hour, an opposition senator, was sentenced to seven years in prison earlier this month for claiming to have a treaty showing that the 1980s government wanted to dissolve the border with Vietnam.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy, speaking by telephone on Thursday from France, where he is living in exile, said the government’s request for France’s help was a tacit admission that the map it had been using was not good enough and liable to lead to mistakes.
“If you read between the lines, this is a confession,” he said. “They implicitly recognize that what the opposition raised…that what the opposition lawmakers raised, Um Sam An and Hong Sok Hour, that they were right.”
Opposition lawmaker Mao Monyvann, one of the party’s lead critics of the government’s border demarcation, agreed that the government’s turn to France for a new map suggested it recognized the problems pointed out by the CNRP.
“The 1:50,000 one is still controversial, meaning it does not have national consensus, so they want to take the one kept by the United Nations and have it transferred by a French technical team,” he said.
“If the transfer is technically correct and can maintain the national benefit, congratulations.”