Koh pau, Kep Municipality – “Long Live the Prosperity of Democratic Kampuchea” states an inscription in the massive, concrete Khmer Rouge-era bunker that looks out on Koh Tral, an island looming in the haze just a few dozen kilometers away from this tiny speck on the map.
Located below the bunker near the coast lies the ruins of a thatch observation post—blown over in a recent storm—that was built by the Cambodian border police who now occupy the island.
The bunker on Koh Pau and similar concrete-enforced gun emplacements on other tiny Cambodian islands near the Brevie line, which now demarcates the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, hark back to a time when relations with neighboring Vietnam were anything but peaceful.
The war may be over, the heavy machine guns gone, but the sometimes-bitter memories live on.
“I’m very sorry my country lost Koh Tral,” said Noeun Kam, 28, owner of the Kim Ly restaurant in Kep town, whose dining area features stunning views of the sea—and of Koh Tral on the horizon. “When people come from Phnom Penh, they are sorry too,” he said.
Jules Brevie, governor general of Indochina, in 1939 demarcated his famous line, placing Koh Tral—or Phu Quoc as it is known in Vietnam—under the administrative control of Cochin-China.
Cambodia at the time was a French protectorate, not French territory, and French businessmen in Cochin-China had lobbied vociferously for Koh Tral to be administered from Saigon, despite Cambodia’s claim to the island.
“Since I was born, the island [Koh Tral] is under Vietnamese control,” said Bun Sev, 38, a fisherman camped at Koh Pau who plies the border islands for the region’s famous crabs.
“We still want it, we want it back,” he said.
Other fisherman and villagers voiced similar sentiments to Bun Sev. So did one young border policeman who declined to be named.
“It comes to the coffee table,” the officer said of the border issue.
“We are talking about Koh Tral all the time.”
“It is not just our property, it is our ancestors’ property,” he added. “And if we join together, we can make a big rope and take Koh Tral back.”
But Phu Quoc has few ties to Cambodia nowadays and ever fewer parallels with its neighboring islands in Cambodia.
According to the official Web site, www.phuquoc.info, the island has a growing tourism trade, an airport, banks and automated teller machines, hotels and a resort with a beauty salon and health club where visitors can watch Vietnamese and cable television.
The Web site www.vietnamadventures.com states that visitors can also enjoy windsurfing, snorkeling and diving off the island’s coast.
“Today Phu Quoc is served by four flights a day and backpackers share the sandy white beaches with jet-setters,” the Web site states.
Just across the sea border, maps used by the Cambodian border police and shown to reporters were printed in Vietnamese because suitable maps were not available in Khmer.
Some villagers and fishermen living in Kep or in makeshift camps on nearby islands said they had heard that Koh Tral had once belonged to Cambodia but that the island had been lost.
Some blamed the loss on retired King Norodom Sihanouk, others blamed the current government and some suggested that Cambodia go before an international tribunal in hopes of obtaining a judgment returning Koh Tral to Cambodia.
But almost all agreed that force was not the way to solve the border issue and that while it was a very, very important problem, it was nonetheless secondary to issues such as poverty.
“Daily issues are more important than the Koh Tral issue,” Bun Sev admitted, whittling away at a piece of wood with a small ax. “If we just think about the island, we have no food to eat.”
“People here, they are poor. They live hand to mouth,” said Penh Phearo, chief of the Coast Guard in Kep. “If there are storms for several days, they cannot fish and they are in trouble.”
Penh Phearo also chaffed at his men’s own lack of equipment, saying that if a fishing boat overturns in a storm his forces might not be able to save those thrown into the sea.
“The problem is going slow, the lack of equipment,” he said while traveling with reporters in a small, rented tourist speedboat near the sea border with Vietnam. “We cannot save the people in time.”
The Coast Guard, he said, also lacked medical supplies and had been without a patrol boat since its only one was recalled to Phnom Penh.
But even when the boat was still on hand, he added, high fuel prices made regular patrols prohibitively expensive.
Other border police officials voiced similar complaints.
“If we need to patrol, we have to borrow the boat from the fishermen,” said Pin Yun, deputy chief of the Coast Guard post on tiny Koh Karang, an island just 30 km from Koh Tral.
He said his men were able to muster the supplies to mount a patrol only about two times per month. The Vietnamese, in contrast, he and other border officials said, patrol on a daily basis.
And while a Khmer Rouge-era bunker still sits atop a strategic perch on the Koh Karang, troops on the island today are armed only with a medley of rusty, ancient weapons—mostly M-16s and AK-47s.
The Koh Karang post sometimes feels more like a farm than a military installation.
The humble, wooden Coast Guard barracks sports sun-washed photos of Thai and Cambodian pop stars, and even one of a busty Britney Spears, taken from magazines for teenagers.
Outside chickens and ducks scrape out a living from the dust and scrub near a small vegetable garden the border police officials have planted and fenced off.
“There’s no problem at the border,” Coast Guard Chief of Staff Khorn Sovanna joked in French to a reporter. “We have the rooster, the chickens and the ducks.”
But the problems don’t end with the lack of equipment. Because the border police lack transportation, many border policemen find themselves assigned to their small island posts for long periods of time, away from their families and other social diversions.
“There are no women to be married here,” lamented Duk Sakhon, chief of the Coast Guard station on Koh Seh, part of which is covered by Cambodian phone networks and part by Vietnamese VinaPhone.
“I live here like a priest,” he said.
The Cambodia Daily