Troops from Laos and Cambodia in Cross-Border Standoff Over Road Construction

Lao officer sees no danger of armed conflict, while leaders say border demarcation discussions are advancing.

Cambodian soldiers at the border area at Siem Pang District in Stung Treng Province, Feb. 17, 2017.

Soldiers from Cambodia and Laos have been locked in a standoff across their shared border since February, in a spat that has seen troops on the ground accuse each other of incursions while the leaders of the two countries dismiss reports of friction.

Cambodian soldiers who are stationed along the border area in Stung Treng province told RFA's Khmer Service that Lao soldiers have dug in in Cambodian territory at Koh Reusey, a town on the Sekong River in Siem Pang District in the northeastern corner of Cambodia. The Lao troops have been deployed in that area to prevent Cambodian engineering teams from building a road and bridge near the border, they said.  

Svay Nhan, a Cambodian military commander in Stung Treng, told RFA last week that Laotian soldiers had dug trenches on Cambodian land for several days. However the Cambodian engineering team continued to build the road along the border, and negotiations with the Lao side went on while the construction project continued.

“Military of all levels have been involved in addressing this issue. Negotiations are under way while the road construction work continues. The border posts have not been planted in that area yet," Svay Nhan said on May 3.

A Cambodian soldier at the border told RFA on May 11 that Lao troops had trespassed several miles into Cambodian territory and dug trenches deployed weapons.

The soldier, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said he thought it was not likely that the showdown would trigger an armed conflict.

The Lao soldiers appear to be trying to stop Cambodian soldiers from completing the road and bridge project, which was 30 percent complete, the soldier said. The Lao troops assert that the area is contested border territory that both governments are still discussing how to delineate.

'We don't have any dispute'

Back in Phnom Penh, however, Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat dismissed the accounts given by his troops.

“I have checked the border area with Laos. No Laotian solider has dug any trenches on Cambodian soil. Our road construction project has continued without any interruption," he told RFA.

"We are waiting for the border committees of both countries to meet and address the border demarcation issue. We don’t have any dispute with our Lao counterpart." he added.

A statement by the ministry further rejected reports of the incursion as "groundless and pure exaggeration intended to incite and mislead the public before the upcoming commune elections."

Cambodia holds important nationwide local elections on June 4.

"Such information hurts the good relations between the two countries. Our Royal Armed Forces shall never allow Lao soldiers or any foreign soldiers to be stationed on our soil," said the statement.

Meanwhile Men Kong, a spokesman for Stung Treng province, told RFA on May 11 that provincial authorities had sent a letter to the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the border issue, he was told that the foreign ministries of the two countries were working on the issue.

“It’s an internal and diplomatic exchange between both counties regarding the issue. We have already notified the joint border committee and the border authorities. Our position is clear. We shall continue to protect our sovereignty”.

Just a 'rumor'

On May 10, Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith told Hun Sen during their meeting at the World Economic Forum in Phnom Penh that the information about the confrontation of both soldiers at the border in Stung Treng area was just a "rumor."

On the Lao side, a senior military and public security official of Champasak Province on Tuesday denied there was any Lao military deployment across the border, describing the movements as "regular duty" for the troops.

The Champasak official, who requested anonymity, rejected a report in the Phnom Penh Post on Monday that quoted Svay Nhan as saying that 70 to 100 armed Lao soldiers had been deployed along the border.

“We did not deploy any armed force but we are just carrying out our duty along the border. When our soldiers are on their duty, such as working to prevent illegal logging, they are always fully dressed and equipped with military equipment, but they do not mean to start any armed conflict with our counterparts," he told RFA's Lao Service.

He said the Lao side warned the Cambodians to stop construction of the road very close to the border, in a "white zone" between demarcated border points.

“Any construction must be made at least 100 meters from demarcated posts, but we have observed that the Cambodian side is building the road very close to the demarcated posts. Therefore, we decided to carefully check and issue a warning to our counterparts. However, the Cambodian side does not seem to be happy with our warning and they accused us of illegally trespassing in their sovereign territory," said the official from Champasak province.

A meeting between the Champasak and Stung Treng provincial governors and the joint-border committee was planned for early May, but has now been postponed without a clear date, Lao sources said.

Laos' official Vientiane Times, reporting on the Hun Sen-Thongloun meeting on May 12, said "the two leaders noted the progress made on border demarcation, which is largely complete. They encouraged the officials in charge to exert every effort to complete demarcation along the remaining borderline."

Reported by RFA's Lao Service and by Chanthy Men for the Cambodia Service. Translated by Max Avary and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Paul Eckert.