Cambodian Title to Khmer Krom Territories
by Bora Touch
Cambodia has both historical and
legal grounds for laying claim to legitimate title over the Mekong delta areas
of Kampuchea Krom ("Lower Cambodia," currently Southern Vietnam) and
the island of Koh Tral ("Tral Island," also known as Phu Quoc). (See
Cambodian rule over Khmer Krom
lands dates back many centuries. A
Cambodian Constitution, known as "Kram Srok," promulgated in 1615
(Grand Era 1693) under His Majesty Chey Cheystha Reamea Eysaur clearly lists
Khmer Krom provinces and their governors and titles. A French official
cartographer in documenting the region in a map dated 1686, designated delta
territories and Koh Trol as parts of Cambodia.
British official cartographer John Crawfurd did the same in 1828.
In an internal British official memorandum (1778) sent to
Governor-General Hastings, Charles Chapman, a British envoy to Cochin China,
rightly advised Hastings that “Donai...is properly a province of Cambodia” (J.I.A.E.
& A. Vol. 5, 1852). When the
French arrived in the late 19th century, Cambodia’s front line was
at the Vinh Te Canal, and the delta region up to Dong Nai province still
appeared on Southeast Asian maps as a part of Cambodia.
Cambodia has never given up its
historic claim to Khmer Krom territories or to Koh Tral.
For instance, a few months before France landed in Saigon, King Ang Duong
sent Emperor Napoleon III a letter warning him about Cambodia’s ownership of
the Khmer Krom territories that had been seized by the Vietnamese.
The King’s letter dated 25 November 1856 states:
Don-nay, seized more than two hundred years ago; but much more recently those of
Saigon, Long-Ho; Psarded, Mi-tho, Pra-Trepang, Ongmor, Bassac, Moatchruk,
Cramuon-Sa, TiecKhmau, Pean [Hatien], and the island of Koh Trol and Trelach [Poulo
Condore]. If by chance, the
Annamese [Vietnamese] would offer any of these lands to Your Majesty, I beg him
not to accept them, for they belong to Cambodia. I beg Your Majesty to have compassion for me and my people so
that we may see an end to our loss rather than suffocate in this narrow kingdom.
On 19 February 1859, King Duong
attempted to retake the territories by force.
Although his troops were crushed, both the attempt and the King's letter
to the Emperor of France demonstrates that Cambodia has never given up title
over the territory. The King died
the following year.
Almost 100 years later, King
Duong's great-great-grandson, King Norodom Sihanouk, continued to claim the
territories as Khmer and attempted to reclaim them from the Vietnamese.
When the Japanese were in control of Indochina, the King, echoing King
Duong’s letter to Napoleon III, informed the Japanese by his letter dated 25
June 1945 of Cambodia’s title to the territories.
During the Geneva Conference, by Memorandum dated 24 April 1954, Cambodia
again claimed the territories and demanded their return.
All Khmer claims apparently have fallen on deaf ears.
French Transfer and the
If it had not been for Ho Chi
Minh, Cambodia might have regained some of its territories in 1949.
By this time, however, the French had decided to install Emperor Bao Dai
to the throne so that he would help them harass Ho Chi Minh’s forces in the
North. Since a majority of the French National Assembly deputies then
were communists who supported their communist comrade, Ho Chi Minh, Cambodia’s
claim was dropped from the Assembly’s agenda and France gave Cochin China to
The Brevie Line, the line used
to demarcate territory giving Koh Tral to Vietnam, does not and should not have
legal effect in this instance. The
reason the Brevie Line was drawn dates back to 1913 when Cochin China and
Cambodia received an application for mining concessions on some of the offshore
islands. Because of Cambodia's
historic claims, the Hatien and Kampot French Residents unilaterally sought
advise from the Governor-General of Indochina.
As a result, the French Governor-General Jules Brevie of Indochina, by
Letter of 31 January 1939, unilaterally proclaimed an administrative line (Brevie
Line) that followed an azimuth of 126 degrees from true north to the point where
the land boundary between Cambodia and Cochin China met the coast.
This line intersected the southern part of Koh Tral.
Brevie also decided that police and administrative jurisdiction of this
area should be given to Cochin China, the French colony.
He made it clear, however, that “the question of territorial dependence
of these islands remains reserved.”
It is clear from Brevie’s
letter that the drawing of the Brevie line was for administrative purposes only.
Brevie's intention was not to give Koh Tral to Vietnam, especially since
a Vietnam did even not exist at the time. Cochin
China was, after all, then still a French colony.
Furthermore, even had it been Brevie's intention to give Koh Tral to a
future Vietnam, he would not have had the power to do so because Cambodia at
this time was a French protectorate only, not a colony.
Therefore, the international law principle of utis posseditis (colonial
administrative division become international boundary after de-colonization)
does not apply to this case, and the Brevie line should not be taken as an
official delineation of territory, especially considering Brevie himself
expressly stated that “the question of territorial dependence of these islands
Vietnam's own position casts
further doubt as to the legitimacy of using the Brevie line to demarcate
Cambodian-Vietnam boundaries. Successive Vietnamese governments, including the
current one, have not recognized the Brevie Line as maritime border.
Considering traditional title, Vietnam as colonizing power, and the
island’s location, Cambodia is entitled to possession of the island of Koh
Unlike prior regimes, the Khmer
Rouge did not make any claim to Koh Tral at all. They in fact begged the Vietnamese to recognize the Brevie
Line as the official boundary, thus willing to accept the application of the
international law principle of Uti Possidetis (although as stated above, this
principle does not strictly apply to Cambodia as it was only a protectorate).
In doing so, the KR reminded the Vietnamese of its 1967 Declaration that
Vietnam respected the Brevie Line as the boundary.
Vietnam refused to apply international law and ignored its 1967
Declaration. Instead, Vietnam
demanded that Cambodia concede even more of its territorial waters.
As is documented in the minutes of the negotiations, the KR vehemently
objected to the demand and announced that they would not give Vietnam an inch
past the Brevie line.
Vietnam did not want to accept
the Brevie Line as a boundary and insisted that the principle of equidistance be
used instead because by using the latter principle to determine maritime
ownership (i.e., a line of equidistance between Cambodian and Vietnamese islands
lying north and south of the Brevie Line), Vietnam would gain an area of sea and
seabed measuring at least 860 square nautical miles.
Vietnam ignored the fact that the equidistance principle had been
abandoned in international law since 1969.
Additionally, Vietnam, in August 1978, made an unreasonable and
unjustifiable claim to Koh Poulo Wai, an island north of the Brevie Line.
The KR Foreign Ministry through its Radio Phnom Penh rightly reacted:
“Poulo Wai and the surrounding territorial waters have been under the
sovereignty of Cambodia since time immemorial” (Honolulu Advertiser 21/8/78).
The KR’s refusal to give in to
Vietnam’s demands is one reason why Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978.
As a result, the Heng Samrin/Hun Sen regime signed treaties of 1983 and
1985 (likely under Vietnamese instruction or force) giving all the disputed
territories to Vietnam. The
so-called Historical Waters Treaty of 1982 signed by Hun Sen and Nguyen Co Thach
basically gave to Vietnam the territorial waters it had demanded of the KR (See
Map attached to this 1982 Treaty). As
these treaties were sign while Vietnamese troops were occupying Cambodia
(meaning there is a high probability they were signed by officials under threat
or duress), their validity is subject to scrutiny.
Passage of Time
Has Cambodia legally lost
Kampuchea Krom and Koh Trol due to the fact that the Vietnamese and French have
been colonizers of these territories for so many years?
Passage of time does not affect
a nation's rightful title to territories once under its rule, as foreign
colonization in Southeast Asia and elsewhere demonstrate.
The Philippines was conquered and colonized by foreign powers from 1564
to 1946. It remained a colony of
Spain from 1564 until 1898, when, after Spain lost its war to US forces led by
Admiral Dewey, it was forced by the 1898 treaty to sell the Philippines to
America for 20 dollars. The
Philippines thereafter remained under American rule until July 1946, for a total
of 382 years under colonization. Another
similar precedent is the State of Israel which was only “re-established” in
1948 after a 2000-year absence. Assuming that the Vietnamese completed their colonization of
Khmer Krom in 1789, by 1946 the Khmer delta territories have only been colonized
for approximately 157 years, by 2002, 213 years.
De-colonization is compulsory
under international law and the UN Charter, to which Vietnam is a party.
The boundary line between Kep/Kompong Som and Koh Tral are collateral
to the central issue of de-colonization.
Under international law, Cambodia has neither lost Kampuchea Krom nor
any other Khmer Krom territories.
>>> Read letters by the author to King
Sihanouk (Sept 02) and Chairman
of Cambodia-Vietnam Border Commission
Var Kim Hong (Feb 03)
further addressing Cambodian
territorial boundaries >>>
>>> Learn more about the Khmer Krom at the
Khmer Kampuchea Krom Federation website