Mon, Feb 14, 2011
The Nation/Asia News Network
While some national media are quick to cast Cambodians as people not to be trusted, locals in Si Sa Ket have a more complex view of their neighbours. This doesn't stop some national papers espousing archetypal bias towards Cambodians, though such popular misconceptions may backfire and hinder mending ties between the people of the two nations well into the future.
"Elderly people in the areas along the border who for long have been trading with their neighbour often remind their children and grandchildren that they have never trusted Cambodians because [Cambodians] are not predictable. 'They may be friends in the morning but by the evening become enemies'," wrote a columnist last Tuesday.
While some locals say they do not trust Cambodians and will demand cash upfront when trading with them, others say such stereotyping is simply wrong. "There's no absolutely good Thai or absolutely evil Cambodian and vice versa," Niphon Polsaet-rerk, a school teacher in Kantharalak, said yesterday.
What's more, some villagers are married to Cambodians and surely none would have done so if all Thais believe Cambodians are not to be trusted.
But history textbooks and popular beliefs among Thais and Cambodians perpetuate prejudice and distrust. A scholar like Thibadi Buakamsri, of Kasetsart University, explained in a chapter of the Thai-language book "Nationalism in Thai Textbooks" how Thai history books made Thai students regard Cambodians with prejudice and distrust. A heavy reliance on historical accounts written by Siam's elite meant Thai history books gave Cambodians short shrift, he said.
"Cambodia [in the past] is just a small protectorate that often seeks to exploit moments of Ayutthaya's weakness by taking away some people [as captives] and declaring independence."
Contemporary writing in newspaper columns, feature stories and other popular media is very much moulded by this narrow-minded perspective in school textbooks, he said.
Sarnti Pakdeekham, a Cambodian studies expert at Srinakharinwirot University, also wrote that Cambodian textbooks more often than not remind their readers that Thais are ruthless foreign aggressors.
Sarnti, writing in his Thai-language book published in 2009 entitled "Khmers debate about Siam", said that while Cambodians' attitude towards Thais (and Siamese of the past) was rather complex, it might best compared to the negative attitude Thais hold toward the Burmese, who twice attacked and burnt down Ayutthaya.
"The way Thai history portrayed Burma as the historical 'bad guys' is not that different from the way Cambodian history writes about 'Thailand'," Sarnti wrote on pages 3-4 of his book.
Given that Thai-Cambodian relations are based on deeply rooted beliefs, historical wounds and nationalism, the ongoing conflict should be treated most carefully in order not to exacerbate the situation further. The conflict also should serve as a wake-up call for people in the two societies to think about how they can best overcome past wounds and present prejudice and distrust. This will be no easy task, but the other option of going to war and hating each other even more should certainly be less desirable.
The challenge for both Thais and Cambodians is to learn not to become a prisoner of their past while also questioning the prison that current nationalist thinking lock us in.