Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Russia's Annexation of Crimea Overshadows Cambodia's Koh Tral Future

Koh Tral (image sokhoeunpang.wordpress.com)

A recent Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by quiet military invasion along with impromptus referendum has raised a serious question how the international laws and norms are observed in the 21st century.  The political crisis in Ukraine and an annexation of Crimea by Russia have attracted attention from Cambodian politicians, political analysts, and many ordinary people who have clearly seen some analogies between Ukraine and Cambodia's situations.  Cambodia has gone through numerous issues and crises in which international law has becomes a key role in settling many disputes involved with foreign invasions and sovereignty disputes with its neighboring countries such as a Geneva Conference in 1954, a Preas Vihear case in 1962, the Paris Peace Accord in 1991, the second Preas Vihear case in 2012, the multiple criminal cases against Hun Sen at ICC, and a possible legal case on Koh Tral against Vietnam in the future if the current pro-Hanoi regime changed or collapsed by popular uprising or defeating in a free and fair election.  Now we try to examine how Crimea and Koh Tral share a common and different respects, and Can the Crimea situation can be comparable to Koh Tral?

Since Ukraine's Crimea and Cambodia's Koh Tral share some common and different situations, we try to search for if there is a probability for Cambodia reclaiming Koh Tral from Vietnam vis a vis to Russia's annexation of Crimea.  In fact, a situation in Crimea is not much similar to Koh Tral since Cambodia is so weak militarily and politically as compared to Russia. Thus, the probability of regaining Koh Tral from Vietnam's occupation is more unlikely to success.  For Russia, it has strong military and political means to regain Crimea from Ukraine except legal mean that Russia has faced firestorm and condemnation from the UN and the international community because Russia clearly violates all norms and international laws that have been observed by all countries around the world.  However, as the nuclear superpower country on earth, Russia has shrugged off all criticisms and condemnations and unilaterally took over Crimea in a brazen way.

Historically, Crimea was part of Russian Empire since 1783, then it became autonomous republic under the Soviet Union in 1921 and a Russian province from1945-54 before Soviet President Nikita Chruchev--a native Ukrainian-- placed it under Ukraine control as an autonomous republic in 1954 under the Soviet Union umbrella.  When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Crimea  still maintained its status as the autonomous republic under Ukraine sovereignty.  However, Russia still kept watchful eyes closely on this strategic location since it still maintained its naval base in there after the Soviet collapsed by paying lease nearly $100 million annually to Ukraine, and this contract will expire in 2042 after recently renewed by the ousted pro-Kremlin government in Kiev.  Thus, the government change in Kiev would affect this contract since the pro-Western government previously did not want to renew it when the contract expire in 2017.  However, the naval base lease is just a small part of Russian interest in Ukraine; there are much more than this that Russia has to scramble for since there are nearly 20 percent of Ukraine population are ethnic Russian and about 60 percent of population in Crimea.

Crimea Beach (Google image)
Thus, when the pro-Kremlin government in Kiev collapsed, Russian influence was wiped out overnight.  Nonetheless, as a big regional power and nuclear power in the world, Russia has more than enough means to regain Crimea from Ukraine.  The majority of the ethnic Russians along with its naval base in Crimea had made Russia much more convenience to seize Crimea without a fight, deploying its military prowess and snapping a referendum.  As Russian troops besieged all Ukraine military bases, the Crimean population dominated by the ethnic Russian majority voted to join with Russia overwhelmingly though in a tense atmosphere.  After President Putin signed the Crimea annexation, he ordered his troops to seize all Ukraine military bases and the whole Ukraine naval fleet in Crimea even though fiercely protested by the new Kiev government and the West.  Now Crimea becomes part of Russia Federation after 60 years under Ukraine sovereignty.

Now look back to Koh Tral.  Is any chance it can rejoin its motherland, or does Cambodia has any mean to regain Koh Tral as if Russia regained Crimea? The answer is no even if the current pro-Hanoi regime collapses, but if the current regime still continues to rule Cambodia, not only Koh Tral but the whole Cambodia will be lost to Vietnam undoubtedly. Now we talk only if there will be new government in Cambodia since Koh Tral and Crimea share some common respects: French Governor General Jule Bravie placed Koh Tral under Cochinchina administration in 1939 while Soviet President gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 under the Soviet umbrella, and both cases were transferred based on administrative purpose only not sovereignty because Crimea was still under the Soviet Union the same as Koh Tral still under the French Indochina Colony.  However, when the French left Indochina in 1954, Koh Tral status also left unsettled, and all Khmer leaders still claimed Koh Tral as Cambodian possession since then except the current pro-Hanoi regime which has ruled the country from 1979. 

Koh Tral has land area 550 square km and population 103,000 ( 2012 ) as compared with Crimea area 26,000 square km and population about 2 millions.  The most contrast between the two lands is Crimea has ethnic Russians nearly 60 percent of the total population who gave Russia the most effective mean to regain Crimea from Ukraine without a shot in comparison to Koh Tral in which nearly 100 percent of the total population on the island are ethnic Vietnamese.  This is a grim aspect and the most challenge for the future Cambodian government to mount any legal case against Vietnam over Koh Tral.  Further more, Cambodian governments from the past through present at least from the French Colonial time have never had a chance to rule Koh Tral at all except on May 1975 when the Khmer Rouge Troops briefly took over the island before they were repelled by the more powerful Vietnamese troops.

Koh Tral Beach (Google image)
Along with those weak positions, Cambodia is much weaker than Vietnam both militarily and economically; Cambodia has no match with Vietnam in term of military power, thus a chance to regain Koh Tral is more unlikely to success.  Nonetheless, Cambodia may still have a strong position in legal mean because historically and physically Koh Tral is part of Cambodia --only 15 km from Cambodian coastal line vs. 45 km to Vietnam, and during King Ang Duong's reign, he warned French Emperor Napoleon III from annexing Eastern Cambodian territories including Koh Tral.  Besides such historic and physical evidences, Cambodia still possesses another legal weapon-- the Paris Peace Accord in 1991which has fully guaranteed Cambodian land and water sovereignty, and if the new government put the Paris Accord in use, it will override all illegal treaties that had signed under the current Hun Sen regime since 1979.  Finally, Cambodia will seek a last resort through the International Court of Justice ( ICJ ) as it had done on Preas Vihear temple with Thailand successfully in the past.  And if Cambodia engages in a legal battle with Vietnam over Koh Tral, it will expect more support and sympathy from the international community particularly China, ASEAN's members, and the other Paris Accord's signatories in opposite to Russia which has received strong condemnations from the UN and the international community when it took over Crimea by forces and an impromptus referendum.

The Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has given Cambodia both a glimpse of hope and desperation over future repossession of Koh Tral.  In Comparison with Russia, Cambodia has nothing to fight with Vietnam to reclaim the island either military invasion or referendum as Russia had used in Crimea.  But Cambodia may have a stronger case than Russia in legal mean since Cambodia is an original owner of the island for thousands of years, and it has the Paris Accord that has guaranteed the country's independence and sovereignty.  However, Vietnam may choose the way Russia had done in Crimea if Cambodia wants to bring Koh Tral case to the ICJ since almost 100 percent of the population on Koh Tral are Vietnamese, and its already has a military and naval bases on the island.  In such a scenario, Vietnam will have options to observe the international law or to use its military prowess and referendum as Russia had done in Crimea.  For Cambodia, as a small and weak nation, it has no other options but to observe and to fallow the international law that is the only weapon to defend itself as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Sanloong said during his recent trip to Europe, " as a small country, we believe that the international laws have to be upheld and the international treaties are sacrosanct or inviolable."

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