Southeast Asian border demarcation talks carry pledges to coal power and political repression

Royal Cambodian Army soldiers. Photo:Royal Cambodian Army

New Myanmar-China and Laos-Cambodia border agreements saw leaders exploit power dynamics to push national interests that risk exacerbating ethnic conflicts and political repression.

By Skylar Lindsay

Two pairs of neighbours—China and Myanmar, and Cambodia and Laos—have recently pledged to clarify their borders in Southeast Asia. On the surface, these agreements aim to reduce instability and conflict. But in both cases, border negotiations are a means for one state to assert its strategic agenda under the auspices of a mutually beneficial agreement.

On September 12, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith agreed to clearly demarcate their shared border. The two met for negotiations after the Lao military allegedly crossed into Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province in August and tensions ran high, according to Cambodian officials.

Hun Sen has used the dispute to secure a pledge from the Lao government that it won’t allow Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia via Laos. Rainsy is the acting president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and has been living in exile but recently announced plans to return to Cambodia in November. Hun Sen has also managed to push through a power purchase deal which lands Laos with multiple coal plants and mines. The projects will likely endanger local residents’ health and deepen the impacts of the climate crisis on the lower Mekong region.

In the same week, China and Myanmar announced that they’ll be conducting a new joint border inspection to establish the exact contour of their territories. The inspection will include taking aerial photographs, drawing new maps, drafting a new border-sharing protocol and constructing new boundary markers. The announcement comes as fighting worsens between Myanmar’s army and ethnic armed groups on the Chinese border in Shan State. The peace process has advanced significantly in recent weeks but the idea of the Myanmar and Chinese governments defining the territory of ethnic minorities doesn’t bode well for the conflict.

In both cases, border talks have served as a vehicle for the more powerful party to push its national interests, at the expense of those who aren’t at the negotiating table.

Are China and Myanmar defining the territory of armed ethnic minorities without consulting them?

The last time China and Myanmar demarcated their border was in 1995. Myanmar’s government and its conflicts with ethnic armed groups have changed dramatically since. 

Fighting in August and September between the Myanmar military and three ethnic armed groups from the Northern Alliance shut down two key trade routes with China, at Muse and Chinshwehaw. The area is central to the two governments’ plans for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Beijing appears to be extending its “invest first, and peace will follow” strategy to include border demarcation—a stark shift that makes it even less likely to succeed. Unless the border demarcation process involves the ethnic armed groups, they will continue to contest the territory. However, they are likely to remain excluded. The Myanmar government’s Peace Commission recently announced that ethnic armed groups aren’t permitted to contact the international community directly. 

In the past month, Chinese officials have met with the ethnic armed groups to try to broker peace, but the future of this relationship is in question.

The Northern Alliance groups—the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA)—declared a unilateral ceasefire for Shan State on September 9. On September 17, the armed groups and Myanmar’s peace negotiators reached an agreement “in principle” on points of a draft ceasefire. All parties said they would commit to finding a way to end the fighting and cooperate to help the thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting. But in the past two months, the two sides have struggled to find a mutually-acceptable venue for peace talks. Demarcating territory isn’t on the table. Adding Beijing to the equation won’t help matters.

While the border demarcation agreement between China and Myanmar appears neutral and mutually beneficial, it comes amid an active conflict and questions over whether the CMEC and BRI are beneficial for many communities in Myanmar. The questions for leaders in Beijing and Naypyitaw are: why now? And how will ethnic minorities be involved?

Laos and Cambodia have emerged from their border dispute with a commitment to political repression

Following August’s escalation of the Laos-Cambodia border dispute, Cambodian authorities said they were preparing to evacuate over 1,200 local families from the area. But a source connected to the Lao military told Radio Free Asia that the friction began when “drunk Cambodian soldiers ordered Lao soldiers to withdraw from the conflict area within three days or face military action.”

The ensuing agreements on September 12 ostensibly offered Laos concessions on border issues while pushing Cambodia’s agenda on energy and the CNRP. 

The deals offered Laos a pardon in exchange for falling in line and agreeing to prevent Rainsy from challenging Chinese influence in Cambodia.

“Under Hun Sen, Cambodia lacks both democracy and territorial integrity,” Rainsy said recently. Rainsy has said that he plans to lead a new government that will “kick out the Chinese and refuse Beijing permission to use Cambodia as its military base.”

Stung Treng Border Crossing Station Laos-Cambodia.
Photo: Pierre Andre

Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has now said his government will help Hun Sen prevent Rainsy’s return.“If any convicted person crosses Laos, regardless of nationality, we will take strict measures against them,” said Thongloun Sisoulith. “We will strictly enforce this for our friends in Cambodia.”

It didn’t take much to push Laos towards an anti-CNRP stance. Vientiane is already strengthening ties with Beijing and stands to make political gains from a firmer position towards Rainsy. Over three-quarters of the country’s foreign investment comes from China. Discussions of territory and borders provided an easy context for the hardening of attitudes.

Regional and international civil society groups raised concerns about the Lao prime minister’s commitment. “Neighbouring countries have a duty to support all efforts towards political dialogue in Cambodia and should not kneel to the demands of an increasingly dangerous autocrat,” said Kasit Piromya, a board member at ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and former member of the Thai parliament.

Cambodia also secured a deal for coal power from Laos that threatens the local environment and communities

At the border discussions earlier this month, Cambodia also secured a deal to purchase 2,400 MW of power from coal-fired power plants in Laos. The Cambodian government will be the sole purchaser of power from multiple coal power projects in Laos. 

Prime Minister of Lao People’s Democratic Republic Thongloun Sisoulith.
Photo: Kremlin

The budget for the mines, power plants and infrastructure involved in the deal reportedly totals nearly US$5 billion. In addition to potential debt issues, the projects saddle Laos with dirty, unreliable energy that will threaten local communities and the environment. The plans may fit with the Lao government’s scheme to become the “battery of Southeast Asia,” but they’re far more costly for the country than they are beneficial.

The two states have a history of border disputes in recent years and were already on track to resolve the conflict and demarcate the border. In August 2017, when Laos objected to Cambodia’s plan to build a road in contested territory. Hun Sen and Thongloun Sisoulith later agreed to clarify their border. Cambodia suspended its road project and in September 2017 and the two heads of state sent a letter to France asking their old colonizer for more detailed photographs of the border. 

In February of this year, the two met to advance the demarcation process and the Cambodian government reported at the time that 121 of 145 new border markers had already been installed. However, in Lao-Cambodian bilateral relations, border issues pale in comparison to the CNRP, China and power projects.

National governments use disputes over state territory to assert other priorities: Beijing pushes to clarify its border with Myanmar as part of efforts to ensure a smooth rollout for the CMEC. Hun Sen shakes hands with Thongloun Sisoulith on yet another demarcation commitment, but it comes alongside requests for help with Rainsy and coal power. 

The talks seem to benefit both parties equally—a shared border is an opportunity for cooperation that will benefit both neighbours. But when the governments enter negotiations on uneven footing, the more powerful neighbour is able to exploit the opportunity and push the other party to support their agenda, offering only nominal “collaboration” on border issues in exchange.