Digging up old animosities over contested land with Vietnam that has previously landed him in jail, government critic and union leader Rong Chhun yesterday presented what he said is new evidence supporting Cambodia’s ownership to the island known as Phu Quoc in Vietnamese, and Koh Tral in Khmer.
At a press conference to announce his discovery, Mr. Chhun presented a 7th grade geography textbook, which he said was printed in 1985 and distributed to students at government schools, and which refers to “Koh Tral.”
“We held a press conference today because a geography book was found showing that Koh Tral belonged to Cambodia and we just lost it during the regime of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea,” he said, referring to the Vietnamese-backed government that ruled the country in the 1980s.
Mr. Chhun said, with the geography book as evidence, he would push Prime Minister Hun Sen to cease treating the island as a lost cause because it would encourage future generations of leaders to accept Vietnamese ownership of the island.
“Sometimes, the previous leaders cannot do it but the next generation can,” he said.
The Phu Quoc-Koh Tral debate is an emotive issue for many, not least Mr. Hun Sen.
In August, during a 5-hour-and-20-minute speech, Mr. Hun Sen spent almost an hour refuting claims that he was responsible for relinquishing ownership of the island to Vietnam.
According to Mr. Hun Sen, the decision to designate the island as Vietnamese territory was initially made by Jules Brevier, the administrator of French Indochina, in 1949, three years before the prime minister was born.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said yesterday that Mr. Chhun was simply seizing an opportunity to stir up anti-Vietnamese rhetoric prior to July’s national election.
“We cannot accept his comments because he always incites people to get into an argument,” Mr. Siphan said.
The focus of Mr. Chhun’s press conference yesterday harkened back to 2005 when he expressed similar criticism of the island issue that saw him charged with defamation by Mr. Hun Sen and jailed for about three months.
Mr. Chhun was part of a group of prominent government critics, which included current Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha and independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, who were arrested and imprisoned for their criticism of a 1985 border treaty with Vietnam, which they claimed ceded land to Vietnam.
Historian Henri Locard said that although Phu Quoc-Koh Tral was geographically part of Cambodia, it became accepted as being part of Vietnam during the French protectorate, which at the time was not a contentious decision as the island was largely unused by Cambodians.
Arguing over such territory is an anachronistic political debate, Mr. Locard said.
“Imagine an electoral campaign in England right now where political parties are talking about the Hadrian wall. These are not the orders of the day,” he said, referring to the wall, built around A.D. 122 that protected Roman Britain from Scottish tribes in the north.