Week 549 – 2008-03-02: Kampuchea Krom and Kosovo

Posted on 3 March 2008. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 549 |

The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 549

Two situations with the possibility to develop into deep conflictive crises have been in the news this week – far away from each other, but both related to questions of the role of ethnic identities. It is interesting – and scary – how problems of ethnic identities can attain, on the one hand, fundamental crisis character, while we live, on the other hand, in a time of globalization, where international cooperation, across the borders between close neighbors, and also across large distances with or without much historical links, is considered quite normal. Some recent examples:

  • Samdech Dekchor Hun Sen Will Participate in Inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak
  • Japan Continues to Provide Technical Cooperation with Cambodian Customs
  • India and Cambodia Plan to Create a Modern Technology and Information Technology Center in Phnom Penh
  • Samdech Prime Minister Inaugurated Site for Establishment of Sihanoukville Special Economy Zone [with Chinese cooperation] Worth $320 Million
  • US Government Launches a Comprehensive Development Assistance Program for ASEAN

How does this happen at the same time when deeply emotional and possibly dangerous observations and intentions are made public – dangerous, because in the past similar expressions led sometimes also to violence, misery, destruction, and the loss of many lives.

Emotional discussions relate also to neighboring Thailand and Laos – but we concentrate here mainly on neighboring Vietnam.

Now the Prime Minister commented again – using quite strong words – “regarding those who want to claim back Kampuchea Krom territory to rule it like under the French regime, he is prepared to have coffins made for those strong people.” The subject of the Kampuchea Krom region comes up repeatedly under three different aspects: the history and geographic delineation of the region; the ethnicity, evident from the use of the language; and questions related to the general atmosphere of different freedoms in society. If these three aspects would be rationally considered and publicly discussed separately one by one, it might also be easier to defuse their sometimes explosive nature. And as often in the past in the Mirror, references and comparisons to the situation in other parts of the world may shed some light on the present discussion, and provide some hints to work towards a better understanding and commonly acceptable considerations.

History and geography

In which historical context are solutions to be sought, which can settle most concerns peacefully? Whoever looks at the historical records of most political entities – small fiefdoms, larger kingdoms, or huge empires – can immediately see that their geographical extensions were constantly changing over the time of history. If every historical heir would claim the largest extension in the past, different claims would overlap, clash, and provide ample basis for conflicts and animosity. The longer we go back in history, the more complicated things can get. Why go back to the time of French colonial rule and claim it as the norm? Why not go further back when the present north-western regions of Battambang were part of Thailand and consider this as the norm? Why not go back before that time, before the beginning of the French Indochinese colonial time? But how far back? Different steps into the past result in ever changing lines of political loyalties.

The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia states that the size of the country is 181,035 square kilometers. Some months ago, somebody had discovered that a web site of the ASEAN Secretariat stated the size of all ASEAN member countries in units of thousand square kilometers – the sizes given were, to give some examples:

  • Indonesia 1,919
  • Laos 236
  • Malaysia 329
  • Myanmar 678
  • and thus for Cambodia 181.

There was a protest movement in Cambodia, claiming that ASEAN had violated the sovereignty of Cambodia by cutting the size by 35 square kilometers, as a result of not reading that all countries’ sizes had been given in units of thousands – quite usual in international statistics. Responding to this, the ASEAN secretariat changed the size units from thousand square kilometers to simple figures for all, revealing that, of course, other countries’ detailed sizes were also somewhat different:

  • Indonesia 1,919,440
  • Laos 236,800
  • Malaysia 329,750
  • Myanmar 678,500
  • and Cambodia got the requested 181,035, averting diplomatic tensions.

Actually, the first figure had just resulted from a general statistical procedure; of all the ASEAN countries, only Cambodia thought that this presented a problem, while all the other countries had “lost” more.

But there are other reasons why some observers point to the fact that the number of 181,035 square kilometers in the Constitution deserves some mathematical-scientific attention (without questioning the legal-constitutional value of this figure).

The border between Cambodian and Vietnamese regions had never been precisely marked in past centuries, and the French colonial power considered this delineation more as an internal French issue, and again did not see any need to mark it precisely. At the time of independence the “Brévié Line” was drawn, separating the two countries, based on maps scaled 1:100,000 and 1:50,000, without clear markers set along the length of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. Whoever has ever worked with such raw maps in an unmarked territory knows that there is quite a margin of different interpretations. That means: a more precise marking of the actual border on the ground, using modern optical precise surveyor’s instruments, is necessary before the final borderline can be marked. Only after that is done around the whole country, including regularly at the changing coastlines, will the mathematicians be able to calculate the actual physical size of the land. The different border treaties – after Independence, in 1985, and the additional agreements of 2005 – provide the basis for such physical verifications.

The modern principle, also part of the basic understandings which led to the present framework of international law and the United Nations, tries to resolve conflictive border claims by insisting to start with presently established and recognized borders. This, of course, requires mutual agreements, if there are different understandings of what is internationally recognized. But the United Nations agreements do not recognize any right to change borders by force.

Languages and states

It is surprising that the notion, that the use of the same language by many people would be a reason to change borders, so that all those people would live in the same country, exists. Though some people might automatically assume that as normal, in fact there is only one country in Asia – at present divided into two states, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) – where all the native people speak the same language. In all other countries in Asia there live, since centuries, people who speak different languages, and people of the same language live in different countries.

There are no political movements to split India into 12 different countries (according to the 12 different official languages and scripts printed on the money), or into the more than 60 different smaller language groups which make up the Indian population. Neither are there any known political movements to integrate the 15 to 20 million Thai citizens in North-East Thailand who speak a Lao language with the 4 million citizens of Laos (where only half of them speak Lao as their own family and daily language). If anybody would like to create pure language-based states like Korea, there would be decades and centuries of negotiations, movement of millions of people, and probably endless wars. State borders and the regions and settlements of language communities are two very different things.

Cultural and human rights

There is a statement by an “unidentified official from the Norodom Ranariddh Party… that the issue, which has been raised in the past, is not to send troops to protest and reclaim Kampuchea Krom territory, but to insist that Vietnam respects human rights, universally declared values” as the Vietnamese government is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This statement gives some hope that others will share this position, which is oriented to basic values and against armed conflict, so that a dangerous escalation can be avoided.

The present international discussion about the declaration of independence by the Serbian province of Kosovo, which seems to be a small and far away problem, is obviously much more disruptive than the powers which prepared it had assumed.

It is not necessary or possible to review here the whole history of the creation and destruction of former Yugoslavia – the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was composed of different states with different mixed languages and cultural traditions, living within a wider community, with hegemonic ambitions and marginalized, or suppressed minorities. However, a brief summary helps to understand some of the present problems, which do not have any easy solution.

The regions of Albania and Kosovo were populated by different people over time, starting – in known European history – as part of the Roman empire in the West; the Albanian language is derived from Latin. On the other side, its Slav population was oriented to the East.

Under the Serbian King Stefan Dušan, who reigned from 1331 to 1355, political power extended far to the east and to the north-west. He established Christian Orthodox churches and monasteries throughout his kingdom. The political, cultural, and religious center was in Kosovo.

Maybe it is not wrong to remember that King Jayavarman VII, who built the Angkor empire to its highest and promoted Buddhism throughout the extended kingdom, ruled about the same era – he reigned from 1181 to 1220.

The kingdom that had been centered in Kosovo was defeated in 1389 in the Battle of Kosovo, and Serbia lost its sovereignty to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Only after the dissolution of the Ottoman empire in the 19th and early 20th century, the different peoples in the Balkan region of South-East Europe were reorganized in different states – mostly, of course, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.

Even during the dismemberment of Yugoslavia since 1991 as a result also of the rise of nationalism – with one of the member states after the other going independent, mostly through violent wars: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, leaving Serbia with the Province of Kosovo, the historic center of its religion and culture. The declaration of independence of this province is, for Serbia, like a cultural operation – as if the Province of Siem Reap with Angkor Wat would declare its independence from Cambodia.

Some people see this as an act to pacify the ethnic tensions between the Serb and the Albanian sections of the population of Kosovo. Vuk Jeremić, the foreign minister of Serbia, sees it differently. The UN Security Council had affirmed the sovereignty of Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, establishing at the same time a structure of internal administrative autonomy, but not independence, for Kosovo. That the United States and some few other countries recognized Kosovo as an independent state, seems to legitimize ethnic conflicts to create new states, forgetting the 1999 decisions of the UN. Will this now lead to declarations of independence of one part of Bosnia-Herzegovina? And of some regions in Spain (which has declared not to recognize Kosovo). Will it encourage secessionist movements all over Africa and Latin America, and in a number of countries in Asia? Will it bring a large sequence of new wars?

Ethnic conflicts seem to be the most dangerous new forms of deadly conflicts, next to efforts to control limited natural resources – being they wars or just unending sequences of deadly confrontations – after many of the former ideological conflicts have less of a motivation. Cambodia is a country with much potential: either for promoting ethnic confrontation, or for overcoming it on the way into a new, future community countries where ethnic differences are not allowed to grow into deadly strife.

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