Cambodia and Thailand Warm Ties
Thursday, 31 July 2014; News by Chheang Vannarith
PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – The quick and remarkable steps taken by the Thai Junta and Cambodian government to stabilize bilateral relations come as a surprise to many casual observers.
After carrying out a bloodless coup d’etat on 22 May 2014, the Thai Junta is confronted with multiple challenges from restoring stability and order, to building legitimacy at home and abroad, and also dealing with the economic downturn caused by a chronic political crisis.
Facing the soft sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, the Thai Junta looked to China and its neighbors for strategic breathing space. So far China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia have shown their support for the Junta at different levels.
The Cambodian-Thai relations faces more challenges especially after the border conflict in 2008. Recent expulsion en masse of Cambodian illegal migrant workers from Thailand further worsened such fragile bilateral ties.
After assuming power, the chief of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Prayuth Chan-ocha approached Prime Minister Hun Sen to build mutual understanding and strategic trust. It is part of a confidence building measures.
During his visit to Cambodia in early July, the Thai acting foreign minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow reached out to Cambodian leaders and tried to convince them that NCPO had good intentions to maintain relations with Cambodia and that they do not actually have any policy to crackdown on migrant workers but instead properly regulated those foreign migrant workers in order to protect their benefits and rights under Thai law.
Upon Thailand’s request, Cambodia released Veera Somkwakid who faced a jail term of six years for illegally trespassing into Cambodian territory and espionage in 2010.
Veera is a Thai nationalist and one of the leaders of the yellow shirt movement, which stirred up a wave of nationalism to support its political agenda and Cambodia became the victim of Thai domestic political game.
Such acts heralded in bilateral relations an improvement between the two neighbors. In return, Thailand also released four Cambodian illegal migrants who were accused of holding fake identity documents. It also demonstrated goodwill and diplomatic gestures between the two countries in stabilizing their relations.
To further warm up relations between the two neighbors, Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh visited Thailand on July 28 to 29 to exchange views on the border issues, migrant workers, transnational crimes, and ASEAN Community building 2015.
Cambodia signaled that it understood the commitment and resolution of the NCPO in restoring order and democracy in Thailand.
The border dispute remains the most complicated issue. Due to Thai domestic political crisis, the implementation of the ICJ’s ruling has been stalled since November 2013 and bilateral talks have been shelved as well.
The acting Thai Defence Minister Surasak Karnchanarat sidestepped any talks on the border dispute and requested Cambodia to delay implementing the ICJ’s ruling.
As quoted in the Bangkok Post, “It is not the right time to discuss Preah Vihear. Any issue which could spark conflict will not be raised at the moment,” said Surasak. “Based on the International Court of Justice’s ruling, we have to talk, but not right now.
Let’s live together happily like before. We can talk about it later,” added Surasak.
At the meeting with the NCPO Chief Prayuth, Tea Banh reassured his Thai counterpart that Cambodia would never allow any groups to use its territory to operate against Thailand or any other countries.
He also reasserted Cambodia’s commitment to build stable and good ties between the two countries. Both sides agreed to promote trade and tourism cooperation along the border and work together to build an ASEAN community.
Stabilizing bilateral relations between the two countries is the priority for both parties. However, the bilateral ties are still in a testing period as shuttle diplomacy is being undertaken to build mutual understanding and trust. More communication and interactions – especially among the military leaders are needed to prevent future misunderstanding.
If an ultra-nationalist group is allowed to whip up a new wave of nationalism, border tensions between the two countries will reemerge and the bilateral ties will face a new turn of turbulences.
For long-term peace between the two countries and people, both countries have to respect the international laws and start implementing the ICJ’s ruling as soon as possible.
Cambodia has exercised diplomatic flexibility and tolerance by waiting for Thailand to get its house in order first before implementing the court’s ruling.