Opportunity, Outrage Collide at Vietnam Border

daung village, Romeas Hek district, Svay Rieng province – When the parched, pot-holed road out of Svay Rieng town hits the Vietnam­ese border at this isolated Cambo­dian village, it turns abruptly into as­phalt.

For some in Svay Rieng, these small gateways to Vietnam’s burgeoning economy represent op­por­tunities, but not for 43-year-old farmer Kol Chheang who has ex­perienced only loss to his growing neighbor.

The once-Cambodian village of Skear where he was born is now 2 km inside Vietnam’s Tay Ninh prov­ince, and in 1998, he was push­­ed off three hectares of land as the Vietnamese border advanc­ed further, he claimed.

“We don’t want to be in Viet­nam, even if it’s more developed,” he said Tuesday. “We’re Cam­bo­­­dians,” he said, adding that Viet­nam has encroached and may con­­tinue to encroach on this border land.

Kol Chheang voiced hope that the Supreme National Council on Border Affairs will help the villagers get their land back, and he be­lieves that retired King Nor­o­dom Sihanouk is the appropriate person to do it.

“Most people around here have lost their land,” he said, adding that the government has not been able to solve the village’s problems.

“Hun Sen has a close relationship with Vietnam so it’s a difficult point,” for him to address, Kol Chheang said.

Despite the proximity to more-prosperous Vietnam, cross-border trade at the Daung village is limited, and the province remains one of Cambodia’s poorest.

Every few minutes, a motorbike loaded with noodles and other goods drives in from Vietnam. Po­lice take a quick glance at the car­go, accepting a few crumpled notes before sending the drivers on their way.

“Cambodians go to Vietnam be­cause we need to buy food and other stuff to sell here,” said Men Thy, a police official at the checkpoint.

Vietnamese, however, “just come to visit, not to buy goods, be­cause we have nothing,” he said.

Daung villagers say Vietnam has pushed forward persistently, pa­rticularly during the 1990s, and now they no longer know exactly where the white zone dividing the two countries lies.

On Tuesday morning, in land they believe is part of the disputed white zone, a Vietnamese earth ex­cavator could be seen at work. Several Vietnamese soldiers ar­rived with the excavator that morning, the villagers said, adding that they fear the trench being dug is a new unofficial border marker.

Cambodian police asked them not to dig, but were ignored, villagers and a police official said.

“It’s the government’s duty to solve this problem,” said a police officer at the border, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ly Quang Binh, political counselor for the Vietnamese Em­bassy, said the situation is not as some people think and the border should be a place that means benefit for both.

“We have good cooperation with Cambodia and we understand each other, and we have promised we will solve the land border issue,” he said.

Both countries could benefit through greater cross-border trade and Vietnam wants to en­courage Cambodian exports, Ly Quang Binh said.

More than two hours drive from Daung village, the relationship with Vietnam is proving more fruitful at the Bavet district border crossing. Three large casinos frequented largely by Vietnamese have sprung up in recent years, more are under construction, and the road to Bavet is asphalt.

“Two years ago, Bavet was a very remote area. Now it’s be­com­ing a city,” said Um Serey­vuth, site coordinator with Muhi­b­bah En­gineering (Cambodia) Co Ltd, which is building a large Cam­bo­dian checkpoint in traditional Khmer style amidst the casinos.

“It will be like Pochentong airport,” he said, adding that the checkpoint is two months away from completion.

“All the checkpoints have to be like this—Cambodian,” he said.

The same cannot be said for the casinos, where many of the staff and customers are Vietnam­ese.

Inside Le Macau Club casino on Tuesday night, the atmosphere was cordial. Vietnamese and Cam­bodian businessmen sipped Hen­nessy and applauded politely as they watched a fire-eater and other Viet­namese-style circus acts.

The Vietnamese “are very friendly with us,” said restaurant own­er Eng Chea, who moved to Bavet from Battambang province to cash in on the border trade.

“There’s no discrimination,” he said.

Trade at Bavet is still largely orientated around food imports from Vietnam that arrive by truck rath­er than the motorbikes of Daung village.

Three hundred people cross the border from each side each day and buses and minivans line up to take visitors each way.

Nuth Chantharith, deputy immigration police chief at the Bavet checkpoint, said motorbike and bicycle factories are reportedly on their way to the border area, and he is optimistic about the area’s potential.

“Everyone is trying to make money,” he said. “We’re not biased to any side.”

 

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