Underscoring public anger over border disputes, the co-Ministers of Interior have alleged that neighboring Thailand and Vietnam have seized large stretches of national territory—in some cases, moving border markers 3 km within Cambodia.
The allegations were included in two letters sent Tuesday by co-Interior Ministers Sar Kheng and You Hockry to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the first letter, ministry officials claimed border markers were moved by the Thais into the northwestern provinces of Banteay Meanchey and Pursat as recently as early 1999. A second letter accused Vietnam of border encroachment into Prey Veng and Takeo provinces, with some cases as recent as June.
Most of the disputed land is in territory formerly controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
A Vietnamese Embassy official denied the allegations. “Vietnam has always respected the borders of Cambodia,” said embassy press attache Chu Loc. “We [are not responsible for] any violations of the border.“
Thai Embassy officials declined to comment Wednesday.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior, said the border issues are “important to all Cambodians” and denied reports that the letters are the ministry’s first detailed account of alleged border encroachments. He added that similar reports were made over the past few years, although he failed to provide dates.
“Like other countries, we have a national committee for border affairs which has been working together with [other government agencies] to maintain Cambodia’s territorial integrity since 1993,” Khieu Sopheak said.
The ministry spokesman was vague about what steps, if any, the government was prepared to take to deal with the alleged border intrusions. “Any action taken [on the encroachments] will depend on the response of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he said.
Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also declined to say if the letters signaled a tougher stance on border issues.
The co-Interior ministers’ allegations won the qualified approval of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was accused by the government of involvement with student demonstrators who attempted to march on the Vietnamese Embassy in July.
“First of all, I am happy to see that the authorities finally recognize what everyone else already knows,” the opposition leader said Wednesday. “Secondly, it is my view that the government has not taken the appropriate steps so far to resolve the dispute. The opposition believes that we must reactivate the Paris Peace Accords since signatories—including Thailand, Laos and Vietnam—are obliged to guarantee Cambodia’s territorial integrity.”
However, Sam Rainsy cautioned: “The government should resist the temptation to use this emotional issue as a means of diverting public attention away from pressing internal problems, including poverty, AIDS and a woeful lack of transparency in government.”
Khieu Sopheak took issue with the opposition leader’s suggestion that border issues are being used to divert the attention from domestic issues. “This is a patriotic issue, and regardless of party affiliation, we should all work together on this….Besides, this ministry has been working on border issues well before the birth of the Sam Rainsy Party.”
Border encroachment remains an emotional issue in Cambodia, which over the centuries lost huge swaths to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.
In July, talks on border issues with Thailand were inconclusive.
Later that month, Senate President Chea Sim conducted a four-day visit to Vietnam, claiming upon his return that the two countries would resolve border issues before the year 2000.