Union Leader Takes Students on Tour of Vietnamese Border

RUMDUOL DISTRICT, Svay Rieng province – Fanning old embers of animosity over land lost to Vietnam, prominent union leader Rong Chhun on Sunday led two busloads of young students and nationalists from Phnom Penh to this rural frontier district to inspect a series of disputed border posts.

Acting not in his usual role as president of the Cambodia Independent Teacher’s Association, but as a representative of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, a coalition of student and labor associations, Mr. Chhun led the group on a winding march through rice fields, swamps and brush forest for about three hours.

A group of students and nationalist activists trek through a rice field in Svay Rieng province Sunday on their way to inspect demarcation posts on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. (Alex Willemyns/The Cambodia Daily)
A group of students and nationalist activists trek through a rice field in Svay Rieng province Sunday on their way to inspect demarcation posts on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. (Alex Willemyns/The Cambodia Daily)

With about 100 local villagers joining the 100 from Phnom Penh, Mr. Chhun arrived first at a red concrete marker a local resident said had been moved by Cambodian border authorities in February.

“It was moved in about 300 meters from the old border,” said Choek Ley, 58, explaining that his family had grown cashew trees on the land without interference since 1982.

“I tried to stop them from planting the border post, but they said that they had to plant it. When I said: ‘I will not allow you to plant it here,’ they said: ‘We will hit you,’” he said.

“They made this land a ‘white zone,’ and so they asked me not to do anything,” he said.

Under Cambodia and Vietnam’s controversial 2005 supplemental border treaty, disputed land was delineated for neither country’s use.

Mr. Chhun, the union leader, was among a group of four civil society leaders imprisoned in late 2005 for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen after they publicly rebuked him over the 2005 treaty. The terms of the treaty were negotiated on the basis of a 1985 agreement signed shortly after Mr. Hun Sen became premier under Vietnamese occupation, and were kept secret until it was passed by the National Assembly.

Many of the country’s opposition leaders, a number of whom have their roots in the armed and underground resistance against the Vietnamese of the 1980s and early 1990s, considered the 1985 treaty to be invalid, and rejected the 2005 agreement because it appeared to legitimize the original.

For many of those at the border Sunday, past takeovers of land by Vietnam continue to color their interpretation of more recent losses.

“It’s an injustice and an act of invasion, and means the Khmer will keep losing their land,” Sun Thun, 50, a high-school teacher from Kompong Thom province, said to the students.

“Historically, this land belonged to our Khmer ancestors. If we remember our Khmer history, this is the way that our Khmer country has been violated. In this era, since 1980, the invasions have been particularly severe,” he said.

Standing next to one of the posts, Mr. Thun told the students not to miss the real importance of the shifted markers, many of which indicate the boundaries of “white zones.”

“This is a test,” he explained. “They want to know how we will react, because they will take more land arbitrarily if we remain silent. We will probably become like the Kingdom of Champa in no less than 10 years.”

Champa, the kingdom of the Cham, existed for centuries in what is now central Vietnam, but was ransacked and annexed by northern Vietnamese rulers by the mid 19th-century.

Mr. Chhun’s group, who were mostly wearing white T-shirts bearing text and a map lamenting Cambodia’s loss of Kampuchea Krom—the provinces that make up today’s southern Vietnam—trekked to inspect five red posts before arriving at one of the district’s large main markers.

Shuffling past a lone Vietnamese soldier in his bright green uniform, Mr. Chhun stood on Border Marker No. 148 and delivered a speech calling on the National Assembly and Senate to review Cambodia’s borders.

“We have seen that these posts have been planted and moved into our land. Even this post No. 148 that I am standing on was also moved hundreds of meters into Cambodian land,” he said.

“We need to reshuffle [the border], but we have to cancel the supplemental agreement first,” Mr. Chhun said. “And when we conduct the border demarcation next time, we will not do it bilaterally, because we are under [the control of] Vietnam, so there must be international agents who join in on the border demarcation.”

Chanting “Long live the territory of Cambodia!” the group then walked back to the pagoda from which they had set off, where buses were standing by to take them back to Phnom Penh.

Taking stock of their journey, the students said they had learned a lot about Cambodia’s border situation.

“From my observations, it is true that they have planted border posts further in on our land,” said recent high-school graduate Sophann Mai, 18. “We as the youth feel great pain after learning that they are moving in on our land.”

reaksmey@cambodiadaily.com, willemyns@cambodiadaily.com

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