Are Cambodia and Laos Really Any Closer to Resolving Their Border Dispute?

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Are Cambodia and Laos Really Any Closer to Resolving Their Border Dispute?

Despite some incremental progress, deeper questions remain unresolved.

Cambodia and Los have again agreed to work together to resolve the issue of their disputed border area. This time, two countries decided to set up a coordination mechanism at the departmental level to facilitate the work, while seeking more frequent meetings between the board committees of their own.

Given the fact that border disputes have been the main source of tension between Cambodia and Laos, which have generally enjoyed a good relationship, it might certainly seem encouraging to see two countries putting in the effort together. At the same time, it is still a bit worrisome that the discussions have not made progress fast enough and more concrete measures have not been taken when considering the disputes have caused military tension between the two.

Furthermore, apart from holding these consultations and making incremental progress on confidence-building measures, there are still questions if the two nations have a sincere will to end the border disputes which often seem to be utilized when the domestic situation demands a show of political strength, especially given the suspicions around Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s move last year.

In August last year, Hun Sen’s standoff over the border dispute with Laos ended as quickly as it began, leaving many questioning if there had been an ulterior motive behind his move. At that time, Hun Sen ratcheted up tensions, saying some areas currently occupied by Laos near the border of two countries should belong to Cambodia by citing a map produced during the French colonial era.

Hun Sen warned the Lao government that it had six days to leave Cambodian claimed territory and if not “then we will start to take action,” and this was followed by the dispatch of troops and armored vehicles by the Cambodian government. However, just one day after his heated move, Hun Sen flew directly to the Lao capital, Vientiane, to meet Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, which resulted in an agreement to pull troops from both sides out of the contested area.

The Cambodian leader’s decision to take such a tough stance after months of downplaying the dispute was suspicious enough to raise questions among his critics that the move could be boiled down to domestic politics ahead of a general election set for July.  “Laos, which had maintained its strong stance, including the refusal of a letter from Hun Sen, has also entered peace mode after the visit, indicating that it is also possible that some behind-the-scenes diplomatic agreements between the two countries have been made,” said Lee yo-han, a researcher for Southeast Asia at Seoul-based Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

The day after the final warning from Cambodia, Hun Sen’s visit to Vientiane and the announcement of troop withdrawals were made right away, and though the territorial disputes were between the two countries, Laos showed relatively “little presence” in the resolution process, Lee added. This scenario could be seen as a process masterminded by Hun in cooperation with Laos as he wanted to raise his and his party’s status and position by playing the so-called “nationalism card,” he noted.

“If the dispute between the two countries was resolved by careful planning to enhance the political position and status of Hun, there is a possibility that future territorial disputes could be used to sort out the domestic issues of each [of the two countries],” Lee said.

The two neighboring members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) share a 535-kilometer boundary, which they still need to resolve through various measures such as the installation of border markers.

Though the issue is often presented as a security matter, it in fact as broader consequences for the relationship. An unstable state of affairs means a less attractive environment for not only tourists but also foreign investors. This is far from a positive thing for the two, which, for all their challenges, have seen modest economic growth annually and are hoping to achieve more both on their own and with each other.