A Cambodian opposition leader on Monday pledged to reclaim an island off the country’s southern coast from Vietnam if an opposition alliance ousts Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the July 2013 general election.
Phu Quoc Island—known in Khmer as Koh Tral Island—will be returned to Cambodian sovereignty through “legal means” if the alliance between the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and another key opposition party—the Human Rights Party (HRP)—wins the polls, said HRP leader Kem Sokha.
The two parties have set up a transitional body known as the National Salvation Party to implement the merger.
Kem Sokha compared Cambodia’s loss of Phu Quoc Island, which has been administered by Vietnam for the last 150 years, with the fate of Singapore determined under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824.
The treaty, which reaffirmed Singapore as a British possession, officially divided the Malay world into two—Malaya, which was ruled by the U.K., and the Dutch East Indies, which was ruled by the Netherlands.
The successor states of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies are Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively. Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.
“Our Koh Tral is almost the same as Singapore. But we lost it to another country for nothing,” Kem Sokha told RFA’s Khmer service.
Kem Sokha stressed that his party would seek to resolve the dispute over Phu Quoc, which has a population of 85,000 and lies just 12 km (7.5 miles) off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, through legal means and not through acts of war.
“The National Salvation Party’s policy is to solve the issues of national territorial integrity with nonviolence. Not through war, but according to law,” he said.
“We believe that the case of Koh Tral can be settled in our favor through the law with the help of legal experts.”
Although the island was formerly part of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire, Phu Quoc was administered by France as part of its Indochina colony together with Vietnam from 1862 until 1953.
When countries in then-Indochina eventually gained independence from France, Vietnam was granted a large majority of the land around the Mekong River Delta, including Phu Quoc, according to records.
The island is the largest in Vietnam at 574 square kilometers (222 square miles) and is administered by a part of Kien Giang province known as Phu Quoc district. The district includes the island proper, located 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the nearest coastal town of Ha Tien, and 21 smaller islets.
Phu Quoc’s economy is largely based on its rich fishing grounds, agriculture, and a fast-growing tourism sector. Vietnam’s Air Mekong airline is also headquartered on the island.
Tit Sothea, spokesman for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party, said Kem Sokha is playing off of nationalist sentiment to try to gain support ahead of the 2013 elections and that he is “misleading” the Cambodian people.
“Even if Kem Sokha is fortunate enough to win the election and become the prime minister, he would still be unable to solve the problem through legal and historical means,” he said.
Vietnamese administration of Phu Quoc and the area’s archipelagos has long been a source of frustration for the Cambodian people, particularly for those who inhabit the country’s coastal areas.
In 1975, during the bloody rule of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, a squad of soldiers raided and captured Phu Quoc, but Vietnam soon retook the island.
The raid was the first of a series of incursions and counter-incursions that would later escalate into the Cambodian-Vietnamese War in 1979.
Cambodia and Vietnam share 2,570 kilometers (1,600 miles) of land and sea border and recently completed 280 of 314 planned border posts, or about 90 percent of their joint demarcation.
Many Cambodians are wary of Vietnam’s influence over their country’s affairs.
An estimated 1.7 million people, or one in four Cambodians, died in what came to be called the “Killing Fields” after the ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. The regime was unseated when Vietnam invaded the country four years later.
Vietnam occupied the country for a decade before withdrawing its troops and signing the Paris Peace Agreement to restore sovereignty and stability to Cambodia.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.