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Treading An Invisible Line: Investigating Khmer-Laos Connections

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

ABOUT | While being separated by the riverine border, Cambodia and Laos have fostered transboundary socio-economic relations. Still, the presence of the border shapes the people’s senses of identity and place. Join us on the journey across the Mekong River; you will discover two villages that are paradoxically connected and divided by the river.

Team members: 
Chen Yu Hong, Eddie Lim Wei Woon, Hema Chandramohan, Koun Kunnlakanna

INTRODUCTION


The Mekong River and its tributaries sustain millions of lives across six countries, and some parts of the river serve as borders[1]. Our reporters delves into one section of the river in the northeast of Cambodia that demarcates a border between Cambodia and Laos. The riverine border divides up several small islands on the river between the two states. For both Khmer and Lao people who have settled down along the border, however, their everyday lives are deeply intertwined and indifferent to the border. The river is not considered a boundary that separates them but a medium through which these two communities share resources. In this sense, the border is an invisible one. In some occasions, such ‘border line’ is pushed back and forth too; people cross the border to obtain and sell goods and to visit their friends and relatives. There is no steadfast barrier preventing them from easily doing so. In other words, the border is a fluid one.


EVERYDAY GEOGRAPHIES

“Hang Khone and Preah Rumkel are related, sometimes even by blood.” – Ngu Mai (Hang Khone Village Chief)

Khmer in Preah Rumkel village and Laotians in Hang Khone village on Don Khone island are connected intimately. Intermarriages are symbolic linkages that interwine two people by blood. Mixed marriage couples tend to migrate and stay on either side permanently, but they remain spatially mobile on an everyday basis.


Locations of Preah Rumkel village (below) and Hang Khone village (top) (Source of the map: Google Maps, 2018)


Chan Sih Bol, our host and a border police officer, mentioned, “it is completely acceptable for Laotians and Khmer to marry in this region because we are like one people”. Ngu Mai, the Southern Hang Khone Village Chief, confirmed that many Laotians in Hang Khone have siblings and close friends across the riverine border. In such special events like Pchum Ben, an annual festival to worship ancestors and unknown dead, all the people in Preah Rumkel participate and pray for good luck[2]. The Khmers take turns to invite to the events their relatives including Laotians living across the river.


Ngu Mai (third from left), Don Khone Island, 2018.


The close relationship between the two ethnic groups is maintained not only through ceremonial weddings and festivals but also by their everyday cross-border economic activities. Primarily because of the distance from the provincial center, villagers in Preah Rumkel often sell fish and frogs caught along the river and buy daily necessities at the Veun Khan Market across the river border. Dahn, one of the hawkers in the market, told us that the market is connected to bigger townships in Southern Laotian provinces to which she travels daily for three hours to sell seafood caught elsewhere in Cambodia and buy Laos and Thai goods for buyers here. It is therefore not surprising that many Khmers in Preah Rumkel can speak fluent Laos; many languages are spoken at the market, just like the multiply currencies including Cambodian Riel, Laotian Kip, American dollars and Thai Baht are used.


While these transboundary cultural and economic linkages enable binding the two groups of people together, the commodity exchange is highly lopsided; Laotian influence is stronger in this region. For example, the flow of seafood and goods to Laos is greater. Chan Sih Bol reiterates that fishes caught by Khmer are sold to the Veun Kham market in Laos whereas fishes caught by Laotians are sold to the Laotian markets in Hang Khone and Don Sadam due to their greater demands for food from tourists and construction sectors respectively.


SHARED SPACE AND SHARED RESOURCES


All the interviewees shared an interesting perspective on the river section. Although there is no collective name for the area, they view it as ‘a shared space’ rather than a river that splits two nations. Fish is among the key resources that have been shared by and sustained both communities for years. Kam Kin, a provision shop owner in Hang Khone, recalls the time when both communities primarily depended on fishing as their livelihood resources. They sometimes did fishing in the same vicinity. However, studies show that the shared resource may be exhausted soon[3]. Ngu Mai suggested that a population boom on both villages and the subsequent increase in fish catch led to overfishing. The past few years have witnessed that many fishermen like Kam Kin have turned to shop opening for earning a supplementary income.


Mr. Bunna (far right), an eco-tourism advocate and tour guide, Preah Rumkel, 2018.

Another resources shared by both communities are Irrawaddy dolphins. They organise dolphin-watching eco-tourism. Information exchange about the whereabouts of the dolphins is, thus, essential for both communities. The eco-tourism allows them to earn additional income that supplements the falling revenue from fishing. Bunna, the eco-tourism advocator in Preah Rumkel, stresses that ‘fishing is unsustainable and that dolphin-watching ecotourism will help people earn money while allowing fish populations to recover’. Protecting the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins is one of the collaboration schemes that both communities could work on together.


“The Irrawaddy Dolphins are everything to us. Help us protect them.” – Mr. Bunna

DUAL NATURE OF THE RIVERINE BORDER


For villagers of Preah Rumkel and Hang Khone, the border is fluid in nature; cultural and economic exchanges across the border are practiced on a daily basis. Unlike other river sections and mountain borders, which could act as formidable physical barriers between nations, they can cross this borderland without tangible natural obstacles. This intangibility may engender the abstract nature of this particular ‘border’; bordering is, after all, an idea created by humans – a concept that people hold in their mind largely for political reasons[4]. In reality, many do not view the border as a divisive factor that separates people. For example, in an interview with Ngu Mai, he expressed the Cambodian and Laotian islands as ‘one big place’. Similar sentiments were echoed by Chan Sih Bol. He said that Cambodia and Laos had long built a friendship and that they would cooperate well together. The border seems to be just an invisible line with no real divisive power.


“Here, Khmers and Laotians have been friends for a long time, and will continue to be friends no matter what.” – Chan Sih Bol

Chan Sih Bol, a border policeman, Preah Rumkel, 2018


However, despite such amicable sentiments, Sih Bol feels that the concept of the border is necessary for securitisation of the village and the province as a whole. It allows the police to control who enters or leaves the place and to ensure that no person of questionable character crosses the border secretively. It seems that, despite the long-lasting friendship, neither of the governments fully trusts each other.


In a similar vein, not all the Khmers and Laotians in the border region feel close to each other. One interviewee, Souvan, a 82-year-old monk in Ban Khoneyuak village in Laos, claimed that he had not crossed over to Cambodia. Our research has found that those who cross the border frequently or engage in cross-border imports feel that the two countries and people are similar in character. For others, like Souvan, these places are essentially different.


This suggests the dual nature of the river border. For some, it is just an invisible line, but for others, it represents a genuine partition between the two nations. In other words, it both connects and separates people across the border.



A border marker on the Mekong River.

The labels inscribed as ‘Cambodia’ and ‘Laos’ face the Cambodian and Laotian territories respectively, 2018.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ON THE FUTURE OF THE BORDER


While people of Preah Rumkel and Hang Khone cross the riverine border freely, tourists, except those who visit shared waterfalls, are not allowed to do so. In case of traveling downstream from Laos to Cambodia, they have to stop checkpoints and pay visa fees in order to continue their journeys. As Wonders (2006) puts it, borders can be permeable for some groups[5]. On the other hand, they can be  selectively rigid.


As both communities engage less in fishing but more in eco-tourism related activities such as home-stays and boat services, will the continuous influx of tourists change the character of the area? Considering detrimental environmental impacts of Don Sahong Dam that is being constructed just a few kilometers upstream of the riverine border, will the depletion of the shared resources like Irrawaddy dolphins drive a wedge between two peoples connected by the great Mekong

 

REFERENCES

  1. Bakker, K., (1999). The politics of hydropower: developing the Mekong. Political Geography. [online]. 18(2), pp.209-232. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0962-6298(98)00085-7 (Accessed 14 October 2018)

  2. Daravuth, L., (2003). Notes on Pchum Ben. Peace building and the Arts, International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public life at Brandeis University. [online]. pp.1-10. Available at:  http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/peacebuildingarts/pdfs/peacebuildingarts/ly%20notes_on_pchum_ben-2.pdf  (Accessed 14 October 2018)

  3. Bahadur et. al., (2017). Exploring tropical fisheries through fisher’s perceptions: Fishing down the food web in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Fisheries Management and Ecology. [online]. 24(6), pp.425-459. Available at: https://doi-org.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/10.1111/fme.12246 (Accessed 15 October 2018)

  4. Webber, M., Barnett, J., & Finlayson, B. (2009). Managing the Yellow River, Questions of borders, boundaries and access. In Water, sovereignty and borders in Asia and Oceania. [e-book]. Routledge. Available at: https://www-taylorfrancis-com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/books/e/9781134074877  (Accessed 15 October 2018)

  5. Wonders, N.A., (2006). Global flows, semi-permeable borders and new channels of inequality. In Borders, mobility and technologies of control. [e-book]. pp.63-86. Springer Dordrecht. Available at:  https://doi-org.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/10.1007/1-4020-4899-8 (Accessed 15 October 2018)