Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace. Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak via Visual Hunt
Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith is set to arrive in Phnom Penh today for a two-day state visit amid a border dispute between the countries over a road being built in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province.
Little has been revealed publicly about the purpose of the trip, but it is expected to include a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen and, some have speculated, discussions over the border standoff roughly 600km away.
The spat kicked off on 8 February when more than 400 Laos soldiers reportedly moved into Cambodia’s Siem Pang district, demanding that Cambodian military engineers stop work on a 257km road from Stung Treng City to Siem Pang district along the border that was, according to the Laos soldiers, crossing into their country’s territory.
Cambodian government officials largely played down the severity of the dispute, saying the two sides would meet to discuss the situation.
“We constructed the road in Cambodian territory based on the map that was made by France,” Ministry of National Defence spokesman Chhum Socheat told the Cambodia Daily. “However, the Laotian side accused us of constructing the road on the line of both countries’ border.”
“We are trying to solve this problem peacefully because we don’t want to have conflict with our neighbouring country,” he said. “Normally, bringing arms into our territory is wrong but…we don’t want this problem to become any bigger.”
Border disputes between Laos and Cambodia are nothing new, said Ian Baird, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and expert on Laos political history. As some parts of the border are yet to be clearly demarcated, tensions sometimes flare over where exactly the border lies.
Several other locations along the Laos-Cambodia border have seen disputes, including a point along the Sekong river in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province and Laos’ Attapeu province.
Baird said it was possible that a local conflict could break out, but any skirmishes would be unlikely to lead to a sustained military operation, as high-level politicians maintain good relations.
“However, due to the pressure that the political opposition in Cambodia has put on the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] in past years in relation to border issues,” he added, “including accusing the Cambodian government of not putting sufficient efforts into protecting Cambodia’s borders with neighbouring countries, especially with Vietnam, there is likely to be some pressure on the Cambodian government to show that they are indeed protecting Cambodian territorial sovereignty.
“This is likely to be especially important now, due to the upcoming communal elections later this year in Cambodia.”