Laos Border Dispute Leads to Critic’s Arrest

A frequent government critic was arrested on Sunday in the wake of a brief border dispute with Laos that saw armored vehicles paraded around Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument and Prime Minister Hun Sen fly into Vientiane to negotiate a resolution.

The whirlwind diplomatic dispute centered around a few dozen Laotian soldiers who officials say occupied a patch of land about 7 km from Stung Treng province’s Trapaing Kriel International Checkpoint.

A military convoy trundles along Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh on Friday night amid border tensions with Laos. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

No casualties resulted from the conflict, though Cambodian politician Sourn Serey Ratha was arrested on Sunday after issuing a Facebook post critical of Mr. Hun Sen and military leaders.

The recent escalation began on Friday, when Mr. Hun Sen gave a press conference from his Peace Palace and said: “I have to fly to Laos right away to meet with the Laotian prime minister to ask him a straight question, ‘Will you pull out or not?’”

After Mr. Hun Sen arrived in Vientiane on Saturday and met with his Laotian counterpart, Thongloun Sisoulith, the two premiers gave a joint press conference during which Mr. Sisoulith agreed to pull back his forces.

“I’ve ordered the authorities involved to withdraw troops from that area no later than tomorrow morning,” Mr. Sisoulith said, according to an official video posted on Mr. Hun Sen’s Facebook page.

The soldiers had occupied the area since April, and a joint border committee is still working on a full resolution to the dispute over the land.

The withdrawal was confirmed by Svay Nhorn, provincial military commander in Stung Treng, who said on Sunday that the Laotian soldiers had retreated from the disputed area after Saturday’s press conference.

“Now they left the area at 4 p.m. on Sunday, and the situation returns to normal,” Brigadier General Nhorn said.

Khmer People Party president Sourn Serey Ratha was arrested in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Fresh News)

Cambodian troops had also returned to their barracks on Sunday following orders from Mr. Hun Sen, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying, “Both premiers are committed to make efforts to resolve the issue together through negotiation, understanding and friendship, and not to let an incident re-surface.”

The timing and rapid resolution of the dispute prompted speculative theories about possible ulterior motives from former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, and also led to the arrest of Mr. Serey Ratha, president of the small, opposition Khmer Power Party.

Mr. Rainsy posted to his Facebook page on Sunday claiming that “Vietnam has recently pushed Laos to create some tension along its border with Cambodia because Hanoi wants to make the Cambodian people forget about Vietnam’s much more serious infringements on Cambodia’s territory.”

Mr. Rainsy provided no evidence for his claims.

Independent political analyst Meas Nee was more circumspect, noting that he was not a technical expert on border disputes and could not say if the clash was political in nature.

Mr. Nee also pointed out similarities to previous conflicts that emerged around elections.

Armored vehicles and trucks drive past Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument on Friday night as tensions rose between Cambodia and Laos. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“What happened this time is similar to the crisis we have—the border clash with Thailand shortly before the election,” Mr. Nee said, referring to a dispute in Preah Vihear province before the 2008 election.

He noted that border clashes can be a rallying point for the ruling party, and also wondered about the timing of the dispute with Laos.

“People keep questioning, ‘Why has it just become a crisis now, in the last week?’” Mr. Nee asked.

While the dispute has not resulted in any casualties so far, at least one Cambodian politician was arrested after commenting on the case.

Mr. Serey Ratha was arrested in Phnom Penh on Sunday after posting scathing criticisms of the prime minister and leaders of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces on his Facebook page on Saturday.

“The marshal orders the troops to be ready to attack, gives an ultimatum to his foe, but bows down his head and enters his adversary’s barracks asking for negotiation,” Mr. Serey Ratha said.

“As we have already known when the war broke out with Siam [Thailand], only Cambodian patriots died while engaging the frontline, while a number of top brass with the ranks of general and the high-ranking officials’ children stay behind, show off their faces, collect money and benefits, and stay in the air-conditioned rooms, kept company by the girls. They will be promoted to the rank of general.”

Mr. Sucheat, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said that authorities apprehended Mr. Serey Ratha because he had disparaged all Cambodian troops.

“He was arrested because he looked down on Cambodian people very badly,” he said.

National Police chief Neth Savoeun said that Mr. Serey Ratha was arrested because his comments incited soldiers to disobey their commanders’ orders.

Mr. Serey Ratha, a long-time critic of Mr. Hun Sen, was branded a terrorist by the government in 2013 and sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison.

He returned to the country two years later after he was granted a royal pardon with no explanation.

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