More than 70 student protesters marched around the capital Thursday, calling for the resignation of the government’s chief border negotiator Var Kim Hong and the cancellation of border treaties signed with Vietnam during the 1980s.
The students were met by pro-government counter-demonstrators outside the Council of Ministers—who accused them of disrupting good relations with Vietnam. The two groups tried to shout each other down, and some got into heated debates. The students group continued their march and protest until early Thursday evening.
It was the largest protest opposing government policy in months, and perhaps the most spirited since rallies against the 1998 national election process. Vehicles, banners, placards, and megaphones were utilized. Monks, too, joined on foot.
At 5 pm, the rally reached Independence Monument and the students were blocked in their attempt to enter the site’s grounds by several dozen police armed with batons.
Saro Sivutha, head of the Students Movement for Democracy, claimed that the treaties agreed to between the two countries in the 1980s signed Cambodian land and sea territory over to Vietnam.
He said the treaties should not be honored since they were agreed to by the Vietnamese-installed government of Cambodia which was not recognized by the international community.
“We asked the government to cancel the 1982-83 and 1985 treaties that Var Kim Hong uses as the basis for border negotiations with Vietnam….If he [Var Kim Hong] takes the 1982-83 and 1985 treaties as the basis for negotiation we will lose a lot of land and water,” Saro Sivutha said.
Government spokesman Penn Thol, who received the protesters demands at the Council of Ministers Thursday morning, said he appreciated their concern for the nation but said canceling the treaties is problematic.
“I appreciate that you love the nation. But the treaties which have already been signed are not easy to cancel. We need to talk with the country that signed the treaty,” said Penn Thol, adding little can be done if Vietnam does not agree to cancel the treaties.
According to an unsigned statement distributed during Thursday’s protest, the demonstrators also are demanding the resignation of Var Kim Hong, president of the Vietnam-Cambodia border commission, who they accuse of not serving Cambodia’s interests in border negotiations.
A seven-person delegation led by Var Kim Hong went to Vietnam this week for three days of technical talks on how the two countries should survey their common border.
Student groups have held periodic street demonstrations in Phnom Penh over the past year to protest the highly emotional issue of border demarcation with Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Many Cambodians believe that territory has been lost to the nation’s larger neighbors.
Chhin Channa, a 25-year-old Buddhist monk, said the protest was productive and that Penn Thol promised to bring up the issue at the Council of Ministers meeting today.
Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy also joined the protesters Thursday afternoon for more than 30 minutes.
“I just wanted to be symbolically present with them for a short time,” said Sam Rainsy.