The Political Undertones to Cambodia’s Unresolved Border Dispute with Laos

Tensions flared during 2017 after Laotian troops reportedly crossed the border to halt the construction of a road in Stung Treng province (Image Source: Pierre Andre)

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’’.

A military confrontation appeared imminent in August 2017 after Cambodian PM Hun Sen ordered troops to the disputed border region (Image Source: RC Army)

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.

The August 2017 border flare-up was defused almost as quickly as it began, after Hun Sen met his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane (Image Source: Russian Govt)

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.

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Four decades on, Laos grapples with Vietnam War’s explosive legacy

The national clearance agency – UXO-Lao – has been working with international NGOs to clear unexploded bombs left behind from the Vietnam War (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

This in-depth feature is an extended version of an article published on Asian Correspondent.

More than four decades after the last bomb fell from the skies above the remote and landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos, its countryside remains littered with deadly remnants from a conflict which long-ago faded into distant memory for many in the West. For the people of Laos however, the harmful impacts of the Vietnam War continue to reverberate deep into the 21st Century.

A covert nine-year US bombing campaign resulted in more than two million tonnes of ordnance being dumped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This campaign was dubbed the ‘Secret War’, as the raids were conducted without the authorization of Congress and without the knowledge of the American public. During the onslaught around 30,000 people were killed or maimed, and an additional 20,000 casualties have been incurred since the campaign ended, as civilians have inadvertently come into contact with unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind.

In recent years there has been a marked reduction in annual deaths and injuries – from more than 300 in 2008 to less than 50 last year – following an intensification of nationwide clearance efforts. However, this success in reducing the direct physical impacts of UXO must not blur the wider humanitarian legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: less than 2% of the total contaminated land area has been cleared, in a country which remains amongst the poorest in the region. In short, UXO serves as a major and debilitating impediment to Laos’ development.

Around 80 million cluster bomblets remain hidden in forests, submerged along river banks and buried in fertile soil. This extensive level of contamination renders large swathes of agricultural land unusable, denting crop production and worsening food insecurity. The presence of UXO also hampers construction: vast areas of land need to be painstakingly cleared before building work can begin, making infrastructure projects more dangerous, costly and time-consuming. The long-term injuries suffered by victims have also created a nationwide disability crisis, placing a huge burden on the country’s overstretched healthcare system and depriving many families of income.

These effects combine to harm social and economic development at both the local and national level, leaving many Laotians unable to escape a life of isolation, poverty and hardship.

Before assessing the impacts of UXO on development in more detail, it is essential to first trace the history of the UXO problem in Laos: from the Vietnam War and subsequent bombing campaign to the more recent clearance efforts of the last two decades.

The US bombing of Laos has long been overshadowed by the wider narrative of the Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and ended when Saigon fell twenty years later. The conflict was often viewed through the lens of the wider struggle between the two global superpowers of the Cold War era, when the US sought to contain the spread of communism through halting the ‘domino effect’ in Southeast Asia. In this context in the early 1960s, large numbers of US troops became engaged in an increasingly bloody and intractable ground war against the communist North Vietnamese.

By 1963, the war had spilled across Vietnam’s long and snaking western border. North Vietnamese troops began smuggling arms and equipment to south Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; an overland supply route carved through the dense forests of neighbouring south-eastern Laos and eastern Cambodia. At the same time, Pathet Lao communist fighters were increasingly engaging in battles with the US-backed Royal Lao Army in northern Laos, further raising US concerns over the ‘domino effect’ in the region.

In December 1964, the US responded to these developments by launching what became the most extensive bombing campaign in history, aimed at disrupting activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Congress had not been consulted and for several years the US government denied the existence of the campaign, referring only to ‘reconnaissance flights’ over Laos. Over the next nine years Laos became the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. In total, US aircraft flew more than 580,000 sorties and dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance.

Cluster bombs – each containing up to 700 smaller bomblets which are released mid-air and dispersed over a wide area – were the most frequently-used weapon. Around 260 million bomblets in total were dropped during the campaign. Of these, around 80 million failed to detonate and now make up the bulk of UXO remnants littering the countryside. The scale of contamination is in fact so severe that UXO are present in 14 of Laos’ 17 provinces.

During the US bombing campaign from 1964-1973, aircraft flew 580,000 sorties and dropped two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The true extent of the campaign only became public knowledge after a series of US Senate hearings in 1971, which first exposed the ‘Secret War’ in Laos. Over the decades, further details have emerged as state department documents have been declassified and US military strike records have been released. Despite an initial public outrage the suffering inflicted on Laos remained in the headlines for only a relatively short period of time. Four-and-a-half decades on, the affair has drifted from public consciousness and has been largely forgotten.

The impacts on the civilian population have been overwhelming. More than 50,000 people have been killed or maimed since the bombing started in 1964, with 20,000 falling victim since the campaign ended in 1973. Children are disproportionately affected as they often mistake spherical cluster bomb casings for toys, accounting for 40% of UXO casualties.

Most accidents are caused by direct impact. This can occur when agricultural workers dig the soil, when villagers attempt to move or defuse bombs themselves, and when children mistakenly play with cluster bomblets. The burgeoning scrap metal trade in Laos has also exacerbated the problem, leading many impoverished residents to take huge risks for a quick financial return.

In the past twenty years UXO clearance efforts have gathered pace after several decades of inaction. In 1996 the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO-Lao) was established. UXO-Lao works with NGOs and international partners to co-ordinate nationwide clearance efforts on the ground. This was followed ten years later by the establishment of a National Regulatory Authority (NRA) to oversee the management of the UXO sector. International NGOs such as Mines Advisory Group, Handicap International and Legacies of War have played a vital role in raising awareness and undertaking complex removal work.

The direct humanitarian impacts of UXO in Laos are slowly receding. In the past two decades, more than 1.4 million UXO items have been destroyed and more than 3 million people living in the most heavily-contaminated areas have attended risk education classes. UXO-Lao says that since 2010, UXO clearance has made possible the construction of 478 new schools, 78 water systems and 75 new roads. In addition, the rate of death and injury from UXO has been reduced by 86% since 2008, with the government now aiming to limit casualties to less than 40 per year.

These figures are encouraging, yet still more needs to be done to tackle the huge scale of the problem: it is worth remembering that less than 2% of contaminated land has been cleared. Taking time to consider this reality – that 98% of contaminated land remains littered with UXO – allows for further reflection on the potentially hidden, longer-term and more indirect implications of the US bombing campaign. In this sense, it must be asked: to what extent has UXO impacted Laos’ development?

Despite achieving annual GDP growth of above 8% in the last few years, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. In the latest version of the UN Human Development Index, Laos is ranked 138th out of 188 countries, with only Myanmar (145) and Cambodia (143) faring worse in the region. Whilst there are numerous factors determining a country’s level of development, it can be argued that in the case of Laos, UXO contamination plays a unique role in stunting progress.

Around 260 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Laos in just nine years. More than 80 million failed to detonate, and now litter the countryside (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The correlation between UXO and underdevelopment is most visible through the prism of poverty. According to the World Bank, 41.7% of people in Laos earn less than $3.10 per day, whilst 16.7% of the population earn less than $1.90 per day. This represents a higher proportion of people living below the poverty line compared to other Southeast Asian states. In addition to a high poverty rate at the national level, a growing divide is emerging between urban and rural areas. The UNDP reported that the poverty rate was three times higher for the 63% of Laos’ population whom reside in the countryside, where the UXO threat is greatest. In fact, the correlation between poverty and UXO contamination is stark, with 42 of the 46 poorest districts being in areas with widespread UXO presence. This trend is especially pronounced in remote mountainous areas where it is more difficult to conduct clearance operations, and along the border with Vietnam where bombing was heaviest.

The correlation between UXO contamination and poverty is clear, yet explaining exactly why the presence of UXO exacerbates poverty and worsens development outcomes is a more complex undertaking. In this sense, UXO contamination has negative implications in three broad areas which are vitally important to Laos’ development: agriculture, infrastructure and healthcare.

Firstly, UXO hampers agricultural production and worsens food insecurity. Even before the bombing campaign, Laos already found itself disadvantaged due to its rugged mountainous geography. Agricultural land accounts for only 10% of total land area, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This is amongst the lowest in the region, and far less than neighbours Thailand (43%), Vietnam (36%) and Cambodia (33%). The presence of UXO across half of Laos’ arable land compounds these existing geographical disadvantages, meaning that only a small proportion of fertile land is able to be farmed. UXO has hit food production hard, leaving the country incapable of providing adequately for its burgeoning population, which now stands at 6.9 million.

As a result, rates of malnourishment are amongst the highest in the region. A 2016 study found that 18.5% of the population were undernourished, compared to 14% in Myanmar and Cambodia, and 11% in Vietnam. Laos was also found to have the highest rate in the region of stunting in children under five years of age, which stands at a staggering 43.8%. As the population continues to grow, food insecurity is likely to worsen. This is already pushing villagers to take great risks in attempting to conduct UXO clearance themselves and farm land which may be contaminated.

Whilst it is true that geographical constraints have historically restricted agricultural development in Laos, it is equally undeniable that the widespread presence of UXO – rendering hundreds of square kilometres of farmland unusable – is a decisive factor in explaining the difficulties endured by Laotian farmers and the poor performance of the country’s agricultural economy.

Secondly, UXO acts as an impediment to the provision of critical infrastructure. Laos’ geographical features – notably its mountainous terrain, dense jungles and lack of coastline – unfortunately serve as natural barriers to construction and free-flowing trade, yet the presence of UXO again compounds these problems. As a landlocked nation, Laos depends on overland transportation to move goods around the country, yet UXO contamination makes the construction of transport routes more dangerous and time-consuming than almost anywhere else on the planet. Land must be extensively surveyed and painstakingly cleared before construction work can begin, lessening the incentive for foreign investment in infrastructure projects.

As a result of UXO, Laos is desperately lacking in adequate road and rail links, leaving vast areas of the country isolated and disconnected from the main urban centres of Vientiane and Luang Prabang. This makes it difficult for goods to be transported to and from the countryside, leaving many rural areas to sink deeper into poverty whilst the cities prosper.

Large construction projects also face considerable delays and extra costs as a result of UXO contamination. For example, construction of the 1,075-megawatt, 350-metre tall Nam Theun II Dam, completed in 2010, was only able to get underway after three years of prior UXO removal work costing almost $17 million. The Dam project provides just one example of the many instances where additional costs have been incurred to build on UXO-contaminated land.

Thirdly, UXO has placed a huge burden on the healthcare system in Laos. There are more than 12,000 survivors of UXO accidents across the country, most of whom have some degree of disability and will require support for the rest of their lives. The most common injuries sustained are the loss of a limb, blindness, hearing loss and shrapnel wounds. It is estimated that 40% of survivors require limb amputation, leading Laos to have one of the highest rates of disability globally. In the heavily-contaminated Xieng Khouang province alone, there are more than five-thousand disabled residents. The high amputation rate results from the majority of incidents occurring in remote, inaccessible areas, meaning that professional medical attention is often several hours away.

In the past 20 years, UXO-Lao has made more than 11,000 risk education visits to villages in the most heavily-contaminated areas, warning 3 million Laotians of the dangers of UXO (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The strain placed on Laos’ fragile healthcare system is overbearing. Many facilities are ill-equipped to deal with the severity of injuries in the immediate aftermath of an accident; for example, blood transfusions are often not possible in rural clinics, meaning that blood loss, rather than the injury itself, is a leading cause of death amongst UXO victims. In the longer-term, survivors require years of physical rehabilitation, psychological counselling, and custom-made devices to replace missing limbs.

Survivors face difficulty in resuming their normal lives, and households are plunged into poverty as families become unable to rely on the productivity of the main breadwinner. Relatives are forced to give up work to help care for injured family members, whilst children often stop attending school and instead seek employment to replace lost income.

The poverty-inducing effects of blast injuries and the additional burden placed on health services exacerbates the negative impacts of UXO on development. A high rate of disability means a depleted workforce, whilst families are weighed down under the burden of care, leaving tens-of-thousands of Laotians unable to contribute towards economic growth.

In recent years the UXO problem has been addressed with greater urgency, alongside a growing recognition that UXO poses a threat to development. In September 2016, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon inaugurated a new sustainable development goal for Laos, entitled Lives Safe from UXO: Remove the UXO Obstacle to National Development. This initiative – known as SDG18 – aims to further reduce casualties, address the needs of victims and clear the highest-risk areas by 2030.

Last year the government also announced plans to carry-out a nationwide UXO survey, aiming to produce a reliable estimate of contamination across the country by 2021. This will enable the most heavily-contaminated areas to be prioritized and facilitate closer co-ordination between UXO-Lao, international NGOs and private sector firms.

The most significant boost to clearance efforts however came last September, when then-US president Barack Obama announced a $90million funding package to be spread over the next three years, dwarfing previous US commitments. In a speech in Vientiane – during his historic first visit to Laos by a sitting US leader – President Obama acknowledged the harm inflicted by the bombing campaign, stating: ‘‘I believe the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.’’

President Obama visited Laos in September 2016, pledging $90 million in funding to aid clearance efforts over the next three years (Image Source: White House Archives)

The successful visit followed a period of sustained engagement with Laos as part of the previous administration’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia, in which the US sought closer alliances with ASEAN member states as a counter to China’s growing influence in the region. However, Donald Trump does not appear to view Southeast Asia as such a high priority, prompting concerns over future UXO funding and raising questions over whether the US commitment to ‘‘help Laos heal’’ will be a long-term one.

Over the last two decades, steady progress has been made in tackling the UXO threat in Laos. The US has finally recognized the harmful legacy of the covert bombing campaign it conducted during the Vietnam War, which was overwhelmingly disproportionate in terms of its devastating long-term impact on civilians. In the last few years, greater engagement and funding has enabled clearance operations to move forward at a faster pace. In humanitarian terms, the recent intensification of clearance work has brought dramatic improvements: casualty numbers have reduced to an all-time low, and the majority of the rural population are now aware of the dangers posed by UXO.

Yet there remains an awfully long way to go. Four decades on from the US’ ‘Secret War’, its humanitarian legacy may be fading; but its developmental legacy persists. Despite recent economic growth, Laos still lags behind its neighbours and remains amongst the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. Given the painfully slow and careful nature of the work required to clear even the smallest area of land, UXO contamination will continue to pose a severe impediment to Laos’ development for decades to come. The widespread presence of UXO compounds the natural constraints imposed by Laos’ mountainous geography, denying it the opportunity to lift itself out of poverty and join Southeast Asia’s growing band of middle-income countries.

The ongoing experience of Laos serves as a painful reminder of the potential for conflicts to kill, maim and hold back development long after they have been consigned to the history books. Given the fact that only 2% of contaminated land has been made safe since clearance activities began more than 20 years ago, further international engagement and funding reassurances will be needed if there is to be a sustained, long-term effort to tackle the crippling legacy of UXO in Laos.