Cambodia’s usually low-key dispute over an unmarked stretch of its remote 540-km long border with northern neighbour Laos made international headlines last August, when long-time Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a stern six-day ultimatum for Laotian troops to withdraw from the disputed region or face a forceful military response. Cambodian troops equipped with rocket launchers headed from Phnom Penh toward the contested area but were ordered to turn back the following day after a hastily-arranged meeting between Hun Sen and Laotian leader Thongloun Sisoulith defused tensions.
Despite a renewed commitment from both sides to work on delineating the precise boundary, the dispute remains unresolved and in late-February – a year after tensions first reignited – the Cambodian military held a live-fire weapons training exercise just south of the contested border. Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the drills were designed to improve the army’s capabilities and allow soldiers to ‘‘get to know the location in order to defend our country and our territorial integrity’’, yet emphasized the drills were ‘‘not a threat to any country’’ and unrelated to the border row with Laos.
Are the recent military exercises a sign that lingering tensions over the border are once again rising to the surface? The answer may have less to do with the dynamics of the dispute, and more to do with the upcoming election season in Cambodia. Despite the border issue remaining unresolved, since the flare-up last August relations between Cambodia and Laos have progressed seemingly unaffected by the near confrontation. Yet the dispute remains conveniently alive in the background to be used as a political tool by Hun Sen, who often looks to fan the flames of nationalism to advance his ‘strongman’ and ‘protector of the nation’ image as crucial elections draw closer. The next is scheduled for 29 July.
Background to the dispute
The dispute over the boundary separating the Laotian provinces of Attapeu and Champassak to the north from the Cambodian provinces of Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng to the south dates back centuries. A large Khmer population was present in modern-day southern Laos during the Angkor empire until its collapse in the mid-14th century, while the northern Lao population migrated further south from the 15th century onward; forming the basis of historical claims to ownership of the border region. The root of the problem today however can be traced to the French colonial era. As a remote inland border far from the coastline and any potential invading force, its precise mapping was not exactly a high priority for the French rulers of Indochina from the late-19th until the mid-20th century.
After the French withdrew in the mid-1950s the boundary remained undefined throughout the next few decades of upheaval, encapsulated by the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Genocide. After the remnants of the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1998 and a semblance of peace returned, closer attention was paid to the border region. In 2000, a joint bilateral committee was set-up to define the border, and by 2005, the two neighbours announced that around 87% of the boundary had been officially demarcated through the placing of 121 border markers, with only another 24 left to position. Yet due to disagreement over the final unmarked areas the job was never completed and up to 14% of the border remains undefined. Despite tensions occasionally flaring, a peaceful status-quo has prevailed.
Threat of military confrontation in 2017
The relative peace was threatened last year. In early-February 2017 Laotian soldiers crossed into Siem Peng district to prevent Cambodian military engineers from building a road over contested territory, and after a succession of similar incidents over the next few months, Cambodian PM Hun Sen issued an ultimatum on 11 August warning an estimated 30 Laotian soldiers to retreat within six days or face a military response. Hun Sen ordered troops to the border province of Stung Treng, stating he had run out of patience with the ‘‘invasion’’, warning ‘‘if a situation happens, please don’t blame Cambodia’’.
Yet soon after rocket launchers were seen heading to the area amid the imminent threat of armed clashes breaking-out, the crisis was de-escalated following a rapidly-convened meeting between the Cambodian PM and his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane. After the meeting, which Hun Sen labelled as a ‘‘huge victory’’ for both sides, troops were withdrawn and both leaders promised to re-establish dialogue channels to reduce tensions and work towards delimiting the rest of the border. Hun Sen later lauded his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Laotian PM Thongloun Sisoulith as crucial to resolving the issue, and in September the two nations’ foreign ministries said they would request detailed colonial-era maps from the French government before agreeing on the final geographical limits of the border.
Has the flare-up harmed Cambodia-Laos Relations?
Despite the live-fire drill earlier this year refocusing minds, the dispute has been pushed firmly aside as relations between Cambodia and Laos have flourished apparently undisturbed by the latent border tensions. The two sides have held a series of high-level security meetings, with Cambodian Defence Minster Tea Banh visiting Laotian counterpart Chansmone Chanyalat in mid-January, pledging to forge closer military ties and avoid confrontation along the border. Later that month the interior ministries of both nations took part in a key bilateral security meeting, where they signed a new memorandum of understanding on co-operation and vowed to jointly combat drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes. In March, the two countries also signed an agreement with neighbouring Vietnam to enhance tourism and economic ties in the 13 provinces surrounding the tri-border between the three countries.
More recently, on 4 April Laotian PM Sisoulith visited Hun Sen in Siem Reap where both men vowed to bolster co-operation in the fields of trade, investment and tourism. It is clear that both leaders wish to build upon their nations strong historical relationship which has been fostered by close religious, cultural and geographical ties over the centuries. Ensuring good relations is especially important given the central role both countries hope to play in China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which will require the careful management of border tensions but should provide a long-term boost to both nations economies. In this context, it is evident why the dispute has had no discernible effect on bilateral ties, leaving many to wonder why Hun Sen seemed so agitated by the dispute last year in the first instance, and why he would risk enflaming tensions again by holding drills so close to the border.
The dispute remains a political tool for Hun Sen
The dispute has arguably been used by Hun Sen as part of a wider strategy to promote his image as the sole capable protector of his country’s national security and territorial sovereignty ahead of upcoming elections. It should not be overlooked that the escalation came in a year when Hun Sen also cracked down on alleged internal ‘threats’ by arresting political opponents on contentious treason charges, dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and forced the closure of critical independent media outlets such as the Cambodia Daily. The minor border incursion by Laos was presented as another – this time external – ‘threat’ which only the prime minister was said to be capable of responding to. This portrayal was visible through Hun Sen’s claim that the dispute would be ‘‘hard to resolve’’ if it were not for his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Lao politicians, in addition to February’s exercise carried-out by a battalion created by the PM just days after last August’s flare-up.
To secure enough votes from the public to guarantee an extension of his 33-years in power, Hun Sen appears keen to play the nationalist card and remind voters of internal and external ‘threats’ which he says pose a danger to the once-troubled country. The PM has often used alarmist rhetoric before elections by warning voters of a descent back into civil war if his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is not re-elected. Laos represents by far the easiest external target to aim at for Hun Sen to boost his ‘strongman’ credentials, with its army being significantly smaller and weaker than Cambodia’s other two neighbours – Thailand and Vietnam – which also have outstanding border issues with Cambodia.
Yet despite the alarm sparked by Hun Sen’s ultimatum last August and the recent military drills, the dispute itself remains low-key and unlikely to escalate or lead to armed conflict any time soon. The border area is remote and sparsely populated, making it geopolitically neutral in relative terms and therefore unlikely to ignite into violence. While the dispute causes few problems on the ground and poses little impediment to bilateral relations, emerging tensions over the trade in natural resources and the proposed construction of dams further upstream could make it more significant in the future.
To avoid such a scenario and prevent the area becoming a flashpoint in decades to come, both sides must take the present opportunity to resolve the dispute and demarcate the final unmarked stretches of the border. Little progress has been made since last year’s vow from both nations to look again at the issue, and achieving meaningful progress will require enhanced political determination. Yet while the dispute remains in the background as a convenient political tool for Hun Sen to draw attention to as elections draw closer, there is even less of an incentive for politicians to push for a faster resolution.
A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.