Tensions along the border between Cambodia and Laos are likely being exaggerated by Cambodia’s government as part of a bid to distract the public from the impending return of acting opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Sam Rainsy from self-imposed exile, analysts said Friday.
Local authorities in Preah Vihear province, which borders Laos in northern Cambodia, recently told RFA’s Khmer Service that they are preparing to evacuate at least 300 villagers from four villages in Choam Khsant district in the event that a dispute between soldiers from either side of the boundary intensifies.
“I haven’t disseminated information about the tensions yet, and will wait until the situation escalates to armed conflict before starting an evacuation,” Morodok commune chief Diem Vai said, adding that his superiors had yet to issue an order to proceed.
While Diem Vai claimed to be unaware of the cause of the dispute, he said provincial officials recently informed him of ramped up tensions and that Cambodian troops had been patrolling an area along the border known as Mom Bei, while Lao soldiers had “increased their presence.”
A staff member with the Preah Vihear-based NGO Ponlok Cambodia told RFA that he had recently learned of the border tension and was preparing to assist in evacuating the area.
“I urge the government to seek peaceful talks with Laos in the interest of avoiding armed conflict,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A source in Laos who is close to a high-ranking military official there told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity that the tensions had been sparked on Aug. 11 when “drunk Cambodian soldiers ordered Lao soldiers to withdraw from the conflict area within three days or face military action.”
But the source said that nothing had come as a result of the threats, despite Lao soldiers remaining in the area for more than 10 days.
An administrative official from Mounlapamok district, in Laos’ Champasak province, told RFA on Thursday that “the Cambodian side had a misunderstanding and accused us of taking over their territory, but that was not true.”
“Hopefully, this will not become a big issue,” he said, adding that officials from both countries “are holding discussions to find a peaceful solution and avoid clashes,” although the issue remains unresolved.
A military officer with the Lao Ministry of National Defense who is positioned at the border told RFA that “information about the dispute has not been made public yet, as the details are unclear and [our supervisors] have instructed us not to rush things.”
Senior officials from both Phnom Penh and Vientianne dismissed reports of border tensions on Friday.
When asked about the situation, Cambodia’s Minister of Defense Tea Banh acknowledged what he called a “misunderstanding” along the border in Preah Vihear, but dismissed claims that it was spiraling out of control.
“Our brothers [Lao and Cambodian troops] are meeting and working together,” he said, adding that there had been “some misunderstanding over [border] map interpretations.”
“There are groups of troops [from both sides] who might have overstepped or cultivated near an unmarked area of the border. This is normal—neighbors who are living close together are bound to have at least a few issues. We will continue to resolve these issues peacefully.”
Major General Chanthong Sontha-at with the Lao Ministry of National Defense called the situation at the border “normal,” during a phone interview with RFA.
“There is no problem, and nothing is very serious,” he said, before abruptly ending the call.
Reports of the border dispute come as Cambodia’s government has sought to downplay the impending return of Sam Rainsy, who the CNRP announced last week will return to Cambodia from exile, along with several other high-ranking party officials, on Nov. 9 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France, despite threats by Prime Minister Hun Sen to imprison them.
Sam Rainsy recently vowed to lead two million migrant workers from Cambodia toiling in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and other countries, home when he returns to lead what he says will be a restoration of democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
Tea Banh vowed on Tuesday that Sam Rainsy will be arrested by the military upon setting foot inside Cambodia, while last week, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng warned the public not to fall victim to “propaganda” from the CNRP and protest the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), suggesting such demonstrations could lead to civil war.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s regime, which—along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media—paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia drew condemnation from Western governments following the ballot, with the U.S. imposing visa sanctions on officials seen as limiting democracy in the country and the EU launching a six-month monitoring period that ended this month to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what are seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, but has continued to actively shepherd the CNRP in exile while CNRP President Kem Sokha is held under de facto house arrest awaiting a trial on charges of “treason.”
Seeking ‘political benefits’
On Friday, political analyst Kim Sok questioned why border tensions are suddenly making headlines in the lead up to Sam Rainsy’s expected return, and noted that members of the military have told him that they were ordered to evacuate their families from the area after the CNRP announcement.
“This might be a game that [the government is playing] to create a lot of suspicion,” he said.
“It seems the so-called military tensions are related to Sam Rainsy’s return.”
Kim Sok suggested that Hun Sen may be playing up border disputes, much like he did with Thailand over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple in June 2008, for the purpose of “political benefits.”
Um Sam An, a border watchdog and former member of parliament with the CNRP for Siem Reap province, told RFA that Hun Sen is worried that Sam Rainsy’s return could change the political environment in Cambodia.
“[Hun Sen] took this opportunity [amid military tensions] to gain more popularity, showing the voters that he is a nationalist, just like during the Preah Vihear conflict in 2008,” he said, referring to the temple dispute that continued for nearly three and a half years, until Cambodia and Thailand agreed to withdraw troops from the area.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service and Lao Service. Translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service and Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.