A Lao military officer commands an honor guard in a 2012 file photo. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
A Lao military officer commands an honor guard in a 2012 file photo. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

After much sound, fury and troop deployments, it all ended with an embrace.

Lao and Cambodian troops have since February confronted one another at key crossings and military outposts that dot the two Southeast Asian nations’ 224-kilometer border in what was viewed as a mild escalation of a long-time dispute.

On Friday, however, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ratcheted up tensions when he issued a stern warning to the Lao government. “We don’t declare war,” he said, “we just ask to get our land back and we won’t take land from anyone.”

Hun Sen told the Lao government that it had six days to leave Cambodian claimed territory and if not “then we will start to take action.” Hun Sen later flew directly to the Lao capital, Vientiane, leaving behind armored vehicles to parade around the center of Phnom Penh in a flex of nationalism.

Army vehicles are seen along a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia August 11, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

On Saturday morning, amid escalating tensions, Hun Sen met Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in a short-notice, top-level bilateral meeting. The Lao leader agreed to withdraw his troops – by 4pm that same day Lao soldiers were pulling out of the contested area – and the two prime ministers shared a hug in front of the cameras.

Hun Sen’s standoff ended as quickly as it began, leaving many analysts to question why the Cambodian leader had decided to take such a tough stance after months of downplaying the dispute.

In February, hundreds of Lao troops entered a “white zone” located in Cambodia’s northeastern Stung Treng province to reportedly prevent Cambodian military engineers from building a road on what the Lao considered their territory.

In April, Lao authorities closed a border crossing in the same area. Lao soldiers were accused by their Cambodian counterparts of building a military outpost in an undemarcated area that the two countries previously agreed to keep clear of military stations.

Back-and-forth complaints continued for much of the month but quieted by May. The latest escalation came last week after Hun Sen accused dozens of Lao soldiers of occupying parts of Cambodian territory.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at a June 28, 2017 meeting of his political party. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Efforts to demarcate the Cambodia-Laos border only recommenced in 2000, more than two decades after civil wars and communist revolutions blurred their border lines.

Border tensions are not unusual for Cambodia, a residue of how the Indochina nations’ borders were redrawn during French colonial times. Cambodia violently clashed with Thailand in 2008 and 2011 over ownership of the area surrounding the contested Preah Vihear temple.

For the Cambodian political opposition, however, boundary tensions center on the Cambodia-Vietnam border. It has long demanded that Hanoi gives back historic Cambodian territory and accuses Vietnamese settlers of now occupying large swathes of land within Cambodia’s borders. Politicians and activists have been jailed over debates about which historical maps should be used to delineate the border.

Pundits say Hun Sen’s recent intervention on the Lao border can be boiled down to domestic politics. Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College at Los Angeles, said it was a “nice patriotic feel-good win” for Hun Sen and will most likely produce some good electoral results. (A general election is set for July next year.)

But if the border dispute with Laos was merely low-hanging political fruit, then it would have arguably made more strategic sense for Hun Sen to take a bold, public stance back in April – just two months before Cambodia’s commune election which his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won, but with a reduced percentage.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) shakes hands with Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (R) during the opening of World Economic Forum on Asean in Phnom Penh on May 11, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy 

Some analysts speculate that the border flare-up is more about economics than politics. In May last year, Thongloun ordered a ban on timber exports to Vietnam, a major contributor to Laos’ rapid deforestation.

The US-based nongovernmental organization Forest Trends reported in March that last year only 36,060 cubic meters of raw timber logs crossed the Lao-Vietnam border, compared to almost ten times that amount the previous year.

The same report also suggested that Lao traders might be changing tactics by using Cambodia as a transit route for log shipments to Vietnam. Cambodia’s efforts to stop the export of natural resources, including timber, to Vietnam have been less successful than in Laos.

“It makes sense particularly for the traders who have good connections with Cambodian authorities to bring [Lao] timber to Vietnam through Cambodia,” Xuan Phuc, one of the report’s researchers told the Phnom Penh Post.

In June, Lao authorities reportedly seized 27 trucks carrying timber on route to Vietnam. The trucks were allegedly owned by the wife of Nam Viyaketh, governor of southeastern Attapeu province, which encompasses most of the Lao-Cambodian border area and part of the Lao-Vietnam border.

Slash and burn deforestation in Laos. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Radio Free Asia recently reported that “high ranking officials in Attapeu are regularly involved in illegal logging and cross-border sales, despite a ban on the export of timber.”

It added that the quantity of illegally harvested timber seized from smugglers in Attapeu province decreased this year compared to last, a likely indication of new shipment routes or more blind eye corruption.

This could speak to another reason for the recent Cambodia-Laos border flare-up. But it’s still unclear why after several months of percolation it took the intervention of both countries’ prime ministers to settle the matter.

Hun Sen said that before his visit to Vientiane he had instructed Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn to meet with Lao officials at the country’s Phnom Penh embassy, and for Stung Treng governor Mam Saroeun to meet with Nam, his Lao counterpart in Attapeu province. Several other officials from both sides also discussed the issue in recent months.

A boundary stone marking a border area between Laos and Cambodia. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

“I told [Thongloun] clearly that we can tolerate each other, but the lower level officials they cannot tolerate each other and we need to be careful of causing a problem,” Hun Sen said on Friday before meeting Thongloun, referring instead to their previous May conversation.

Laos’ central government has struggled to enforce directives at the local level. One such local official could be Nam, Attapeu’s governor, who is also a member of the Lao Communist Party’s central committee and the son of a revolutionary hero.

He is now thought to be under investigation by the State Inspection Authority because of his family’s alleged connections to illegal timber logging, though there are suggestions inspectors are only going through the motions.

If an illegal logging case is brought against Nam, then it could indicate that he has fallen out of favor with the Party’s top-most leadership, or is viewed as disobedient to the reformist Thongloun, who by all counts is the country’s most powerful and influential politician.