Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Excellent jump start for Thai-Cambodian relations

By The Nation
Published on January 28, 2009

After a year of border tension and political frustration, Cambodia has a new sense of confidence in Thailand

It is difficult to describe the current relationship between Thailand and Cambodia without taking into consideration the positive body language of representatives of the two countries, as well as other nitty-gritty details, on display during the two-day visit to Phnom Penh by Thailand's Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya over the weekend.

The trip was successful because Foreign Minister Kasit managed to restore confidence among the Cambodian leadership, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, in Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his government. Over the past year, the lack of political stability in Thailand and the frequent changes of foreign minister and government have worried our Cambodian friends. But it seems now that the Cambodians are confident the new Thai administration is a partner they can deal with.

Hun Sen was also pleased with Abhisit's letter to him citing his statement in Oddar Meanchey that any bilateral problems between the two countries should be solved through peaceful means, negotiation and the non-use of force. Both Abhisit and Hun Sen see eye to eye on this. The Thai leader has reaffirmed that the border issues will be resolved through the existing bilateral mechanisms.

"As we are immediate neighbours and share a common border, traditions and cultures, my government is committed to bringing better security and more prosperity to the livelihood of our two peoples and countries," Abhisit said in part of his letter, and it was that kind of spirit that was displayed throughout the visit. Preparations are now underway for Abhisit to visit Cambodia.

Back in 1989, Kasit was part of the Thai delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, which Hun Sen also participated in. At their meeting over the weekend, the two vowed to work together again like they did twenty years ago to bring peace to Cambodia. But this time the stakes are higher because both countries are Asean members and they have an obligation to work for the benefit of the regional grouping. Thailand is ready to do that. In the near future, the country is planning to release a grant of Bt1.8 billion for a highway construction project in Cambodia.

From 1986-2008, Thailand provided grants of Bt1.2 billion and soft loans totalling Bt2.2 billion to Cambodia for infrastructure development projects. Other assistance included technical cooperation and training in various fields. Despite the tension of the past year caused by border demarcation disputes at the Preah Vihear temple and other historic monuments, trade between the two countries amounted to US$1.8 billion (Bt63 billion) last year, up from US$1.4 billion in 2007.

In the near future, additional cultural and personal exchanges will increase, including between the two countries' legislators. For the first time, the Democrat Party will establish ties, and cooperate with, the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

Thai-Cambodian relations are now on firmer ground and the two sides are ready to move on. However, the Thai opposition parties and ill-intentioned individuals continue to use vitriol to undermine the friendship. So much so that Hun Sen has told the Thais that both sides have to avoid falling victim to misunderstanding and misinterpretation coming from sources such as unconfirmed reports from media or non-governmental organisations. Both countries have suffered recently from such rumour-mongering and even mud-slinging.

The recent calls from Singapore and Burma to boycott the upcoming Asean Summit in Thailand were a bit silly. The postponement of the Asean summit from last December has already damaged Thailand's international reputation and the grouping's interest. But at this point, all Asean members have confirmed their participation. They want to see a successful summit chaired by Thailand. They know that a strong and successful Asean that has agreed on economic and financial cooperative frameworks will be of benefit to all members, especially during this time of global economic crisis.

But make no mistake, Thai-Cambodian relations are pivotal within the Asean context. Hun Sen was right when he said the state of ties between the two countries could affect Asean as a whole. Cambodia is an active member in Asean initiatives, especially most recently in the drafting of the Asean charter and the terms of reference for the new Asean human rights body.

The border tensions last year even led to brief exchanges of gunfire between Thai and Cambodian troops, and naturally this caused great concern among the Asean members. After all, no member countries have ever gone to war with each other before. And this is a record and legacy the grouping wants to maintain. The Abhisit government knows that relations and mutual trust with Cambodia must be improved and solidified before the countries can go beyond the bilateral framework. At the same time, Thailand has emerged from a political abyss and is now moving towards a more stable political condition. However, time is still needed before this situation can be consolidated further.


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