Cambodia’s Impossible Dream: Koh Tral
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Cambodia’s Impossible Dream: Koh Tral

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The popular Khmer view of Koh Tral – as reflected in the Khmer blogosphere, in popular song, and on YouTube travelogues – is that the island which Vietnamese know as Phu Quoc is historically Khmer, that Cambodia has never relinquished its territorial claim, that Koh Tral was unfairly awarded the Vietnamese in 1954 over Cambodian protest, and that because the maritime border used a 1939 French colonial administrative line never intended to reflect sovereignty (the “Brevie Line”) international law should dictate the island’s return to Cambodia.

This view and the quest by leading Khmer politicians to secure Phu Quoc for Cambodia appears rooted in myth. It reflects a misunderstanding of the history of the island and the Khmer’s connection to it, an exaggeration of Khmer leaders’ continuing commitment to the cause of Koh Tral, and a lack of appreciation of the legal hurdles involved in wresting the territory from Vietnam in courts of international law.

It is a common refrain among Cambodia’s opposition movement, as currently embodied in the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and particularly popular with party leader Sam Rainsy to “remember the sad fate of Kampuchea Krom,” or that chunk of southern Vietnam that was once part of the Khmer kingdom.

The prevailing admonition regarding Kampuchea Krom in general may reflect resignation, but such is not the case with Koh Tral. CNRP party leaders Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy have committed themselves and their party to seek recovery of the island to Cambodia by legal means, citing international law as favoring such a return.

But both the historical record and the legal avenues that would have to be pursued to secure Koh Tral’s return to Cambodia differ quite substantially from the popular view.

A Khmer Island?

While Cambodia certainly laid early claim to the island, no one has offered compelling evidence that Khmers have ever had a substantial modern presence there, or that a Cambodian state exercised authority during a time of Khmer occupation. For many Khmers the case of Koh Tral is one of history imagined rather than remembered.

Artifacts in the Heritage Museum at Phu Quoc evidence human habitation going back 2,500 years, long before a Khmer nation existed. Pottery there from what the Vietnamese refer to as the Oc Eo period (1st -7th century AD) suggests at least a proto-Khmer presence on the island during a period preceding the establishment of the Angkorian empire.

The earliest Cambodian references to Koh Tral are found in royal documents dated 1615, reflecting the allocation of the various governors’ authorities among the territories of the Khmer empire. We don’t know how many Khmer inhabitants the island may have had, nor do we know how the Khmer sovereign’s authority was reflected in the life of the hardy souls who may have been resident. It must be recalled that this was a chaotic period for the Cambodian state; no fewer than 15 kings occupied the throne during the 17th century.

Around 1680, one of these kings granted Chinese merchant and explorer Mac Cuu the authority to settle and develop a large swath of unproductive Cambodian coast, a project that resulted in Mac Cuu’s establishing Ha Tien and six other villages as trading centers newly populated by fellow Chinese immigrants and Portuguese traders, including one village on Phu Quoc. With Vietnam and Cambodia besieged by Thai invaders in a struggle for regional dominance fought mostly on Cambodian soil, by 1714 Mac Cuu had changed allegiance and recognized the authority of the Vietnamese sovereign. In return Mac Cuu’s family gained the right to oversee his lands as a fiefdom, paying tribute to the Nguyen lords who ruled southern Vietnam.

Nguyen protection notwithstanding the Thais completely destroyed and depopulated the Mac’s Ha Tien in 1717. (It would be sacked again in 1771.) Though not documented it would not be surprising if the same fate befell nearby Koh Tral for it was the Thai military’s standard practice until the end of the Thai-Vietnamese war in 1847 to destroy that which they could not occupy and haul off surviving inhabitants to Thailand or Thai-occupied Cambodian territory.

Three reports from the island coming just before and just after the turn of the 19th century suggest that Phu Quoc had ceased to be a Khmer island. In the 1770s Pierre Pigneu de Behaine, seeking to expand missionary activities following the destruction of the mission at Ha Tien established a seminary for Vietnamese converts at Phu Quoc where he also gave refuge to future Emperor Gia Long. Descriptions of this mission make reference to the local Vietnamese population of the island but not the Khmer.

An 1810 description of the coastal route from Vietnam to Thailand prepared by court officials to Gia Long describes Phu Quoc as having a local (Vietnamese) administrative office and military officers, with a dense population devoted to a range of economic activities.

British East India envoy John Crawfurd’s 1821 embassy to Cochin China paints a colorful portrait of life among the fishermen and traders of Phu Quoc, but it is a life without a Khmer presence. Phu Quoc residents reported to Crawfurd that among four or five thousand occupants “aside from a few Hainanese sojourners the population of the island is 100% Cochin Chinese.” There is no mention by Crawfurd of Cambodian authority or interests on the island. Crawfurd’s 1828 map of the area is cited by some as evidence of Phu Quoc being part of Cambodia rather than Cochin China but in fact the map shows no territorial boundaries. The map contains the island’s name in Thai and Vietnamese but not in Khmer.

Sydney-based attorney Bora Touch is the primary legal advocate working on behalf of Cambodian sovereignty for Koh Tral. His own version of history fixes 1789 as the end of Cambodian authority over Koh Tral. His writings speak not at all to the Khmer population of the island or to how Cambodian authority was earlier displayed.

Vietnamese historian Nguyen Dinh Dau researched 19th century land transfers on Phu Quoc. He told BBC he found no evidence of a Khmer presence in these land transaction records .

At the time the French established their colony of Cochin China the island had a population of only about 1,000. The French brought new crops and plantations to the island but by the turn of the 20th century there were still just 5,000 inhabitants. Today, with new industry and tourism providing jobs for new arrivals, the population of Phu Quoc is 85,000. It is predominately Vietnamese (ethnic Kinh). The 1989 census found the Khmer population of the island to be approximately 300 (less than 1 percent of the total). Khmers on the island today estimate that approximately 200 Khmer families call Koh Tral home.

Ambivalent Claims

A linchpin in the quest to regain Cambodian sovereignty is that Cambodia has never relinquished its claim of ownership of the territory. It is a commonly accepted belief, yet one that is contradicted by history. Koh Tral has been viewed as an exchangeable commodity since before the establishment of the Protectorate and there is substantial evidence that Cambodia gave up Koh Tral in the name of regional security decades ago.

The first indication that Koh Tral was viewed as expendable is given in King Ang Duong’s letter of 1853, in which he offered France the island (which Ang Duong did not control) in exchange for French protection. There was no response. Two years later the King in a second letter to Napoleon III urged the French not to accept transfer of the island from the Vietnamese who controlled it, but this would be the last expression of a claim by a Khmer sovereign on behalf of Koh Tral for one hundred years.

When in 1939 French officials felt obliged to publish the Brevie Line for administrative purposes, it was indicative that Cochin Chinese management of the island was a touchy matter for Cambodian colonial officers but did not suggest a royal conviction to press the Cambodian case with France.

In 1954, King Sihanouk objected to the treaty by which independent Vietnam gained full control from the French authorities over Kampuchea Krom and Koh Tral. He noted that Cambodia reserved the right to bring the issue of the territories to the United Nations. However meritorious he and those who have followed him might have gauged Cambodia’s case to be, no head of state has chosen to act on that reserved right in the 60 years since independence.

With a number of border issues remaining unresolved, Sihanouk in 1964 proposed to the Vietnamese a map aimed at settling those issues. As part of the compromise Cambodia offered to accept the colonial Brevie Line as the maritime boundary, thus abandoning its claim to Phu Quoc. The Vietnamese issued a unilateral declaration in 1967 that accepted the map’s proposals.

The parties never signed a treaty confirming the earlier agreement, however, and both soon changed their minds. In 1969 Sihanouk renewed his claim on Koh Tral as did the Lon Nol administration which followed. The Vietnamese hardened their position and backed off their previous acceptance of the Brevie Line seeking more generous sea lanes around the islands.

The Khmer Rouge, whose Democratic Kampuchea* was accepted by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia, fully accepted the Brevie Line in their talks with the Vietnamese (despite an ill fated 1975 island landing), though the parties again failed to reach agreement given expanded Vietnamese demands.

Cambodia’s PRK government affirmed Vietnamese sovereignty over the island in their 1982 and 1985 border agreements with Vietnam. Bora Touch and others in the Cambodian opposition make compelling arguments that these treaties are null and void under the terms of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement as they were signed while Cambodia was occupied by Vietnamese military forces.

Interestingly, though, the Sydney attorney in 2002 and 2004 letters to King Sihanouk assures him that in the event the 1982 and 1985 agreements were nullified the 1967 Vietnamese Declaration would be determinative, thus relinquishing any Cambodian claim to Koh Tral but retaining for Cambodia greater territorial waters. This part of the legal argument understandably doesn’t get play in the CNRP blogosphere, although Bora Touch’s letter is found on CNRP’s internet homepage.

Irrespective of the status of the 1982/1985 treaties, in 1999 the Cambodian representative to the Vietnam-Cambodia Joint Border Commission affirmed the state’s acceptance of the Brevie Line and Vietnamese sovereignty over Phu Quoc, a position reported to and accepted by the National Assembly. Commenting prior to the national elections last year on CNRP claims regarding the island, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated that position. 7

A Quixotic Legal Strategy

Political advocates of Cambodian sovereignty argue that a CNRP government should bring Vietnam to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the issue of Koh Tral. This position betrays a misunderstanding of what the ICJ does. In settling territorial disputes the ICJ relies on the willingness of both parties to submit to ICJ jurisdiction and accept as final its judgment. Unless Cambodia demonstrates to the Vietnamese a willingness to go beyond political rhetoric with economic sanctions or a military confrontation there is nothing that might compel Vietnam to submit to ICJ authority on a matter it deems already resolved.

Were Vietnam to submit to ICJ authority it is quite likely it would prevail. There is precedent in international law (see Island of Las Palmas, Netherlands v. United States) which establishes that a claim to sovereignty based solely upon discovery (we found it) and contiguity (it’s closer to our land) even with corroborating maps can fall before a counter-claim based on long-term display of sovereignty and effective occupation, both of which Vietnam can easily document. Would Mac Cuu’s temporary recognition of Khmer authority, if it could be clearly documented (the chronicles are inconsistent) be sufficient to evidence Cambodian sovereignty? Perhaps, but it is a tough case to argue on the merits made even more difficult by the lack of documentation.

Bora Touch argues that Cambodia’s best hope for Koh Tral is that the United Nations determines the island falls within its provisions for decolonization described in the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence of Colonial Countries and Peoples. Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy have both posited the case of Singapore as a comparable example of this process.

There seems little chance of this happening. The colonial powers subject to the 1960 Declaration were specifically identified as the European powers who emerged from World War II with overseas territories which the UN viewed as deserving the right to self-determination. Vietnam is not identified as a colonial power, Phu Quoc is not a state, and as for the right to self-determination it is unlikely the 99.5 percent Vietnamese population of Phu Quoc would opt for allegiance to Cambodia. There is some legal precedent to suggest that self-determination might not always be the highest priority in all cases of decolonization. Still, it’s hard to imagine how Cambodia’s claim, given Cambodia’s lack of substantial interest in the island and clearly ambivalent position on sovereignty, could override Vietnam’s interest in maintaining its territorial integrity, something the UN established as a critical principle in examining cases of decolonization.

Ultimately, the quest for Koh Tral can only be viewed as quixotic. Should the matter actually reach courts of international law Cambodia can only expect an unfavorable outcome sure to intensify feelings of victimization. It is hard to see this effort as being in the best interest of the Cambodian population at large rather than a cynical effort to mobilize popular opinion against Cambodia’s eastern neighbor for purely political gain.

Jeff Mudrick is based in Phnom Penh.

*Corrected from the original “Democratic Republic of Kampuchea”.

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