Invoking U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the border with Mexico, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha said Cambodia could not afford such infrastructure, but still must focus on securing the border with Vietnam.
Mr. Sokha was speaking on Sunday to hundreds of youth activists at the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters, where he told them to focus their campaigning for upcoming elections on the CNRP’s plan to strengthen border protection. The CNRP has long campaigned against illegal Vietnamese immigration and Vietnamese incursions into Cambodia.
“We have to develop the border by getting a lot of people to live along the border. First, build boundary roads along the border; second, markets, pagodas, jobs, factories and agriculture farming,” Mr. Sokha said.
The acting CNRP president said the opposition’s previous campaigns criticizing the government’s work defending the border—focusing on ongoing Vietnamese incursions—had failed to offer constructive solutions.
“We have attacked them, but we don’t have new recommendations, so we could not find national reunification,” he said.
The CNRP led various trips to disputed areas along the Vietnamese border in the middle of last year, prompting the government to release diplomatic notes to Hanoi asking Vietnam to halt construction or pull back from contested border sites.
Prime Minister Hun Sen largely silenced the campaign by ordering the arrest of opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour in August last year and announcing that anyone claiming that the government was using the wrong maps to define the border would face a similar fate.
However, the issue has not gone away, and Border Affairs Minister Var Kimhong made the remarkably frank admission last month that Cambodia was helpless in stopping Vietnam from building in at least one “white zone,” areas that both countries have agreed to stay out of until they agree on the border line.
“We asked them to stop, but they did not listen to us,” Mr. Kimhong said of a Vietnamese border guard office that was being built in a white zone in Ratanakkiri province.
“Please tell me: If they don’t stop, what can we do?” the minister asked. “Do you want Cambodia to start a war with Vietnam to stop the construction?”
Mr. Sokha said on Sunday that there were more effective ways for Cambodia to defend its land if proper resources were devoted to the efforts, pointing to the fact that many Thai and Vietnamese citizens live relatively well along their country’s borders.
“Why do a lot of their people live on the border? They get encouragement, enough water, job creation, loans without interest rates,” Mr. Sokha said.
“We have to provide agricultural technicians. Second, provide capital free of interest rates or given at low interest rates. Third, make sure to find a market for whoever lives along the border,” he added.
Building a physical barrier along the border, however, was out of the question, Mr. Sokha added, referencing the promise from Mr. Trump to build a “impenetrable and beautiful” wall to keep illegal Mexican immigrants out of the U.S.
“Our National Rescue Party already has a policy: When we win the election to lead the country we will protect the border—we don’t have money to build a wall like Mr. Trump,” Mr. Sokha said.
Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan said that some of Mr. Sokha’s suggestions for encouraging better lives along the border were absurd, and that the CPP had already been implementing others.
“It is the speech of a cheater. Does any government in the world give loans to people without charging an interest rate?” he said. “It is the gamble of campaigning. It is easy to say such things.”
Mr. Eysan said that other parts of Mr. Sokha’s border plans mirrored those of the CPP, which had already worked to turn war-torn areas into livable border towns.
“We worked to change the border line that was a war field before to become a developed area with markets and harmonization between people and people and country and country, so he said this after the CPP,” he said.
Ou Virak, a political analyst who has criticized the CNRP for falling back on anti-Vietnamese rhetoric to gain support, said the border issue was a major concern of the people, but needed to be discussed in a way that did not fuel already widespread anti-Vietnamese sentiment.
“I think the border is an effective issue. It’s one of those issues that the CPP finds very difficult to shake off because the CPP refuses to discuss the history,” Mr. Virak said.
“It all depends on how they raise the issue, and from past campaigns they have been pretty racist in their remarks and the things they said, so that’s dangerous,” he said of the CNRP.
“But also, while they raise the issue of a secure border, it went too far in the sense that they didn’t have a concrete or reasonable proposal for how to deal with it.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)