Asia-Pacific, Headlines

THAILAND-CAMBODIA: Mending Fences after the Riots Far from Easy

Chayanit Poonyarat

BANGKOK, Mar 9 2003 (IPS) - More than a month after the anti-Thai riots in Cambodia, the two neighbouring countries are finding their attempts at fence-mending an uphill battle, made even more difficult by the still-bitter exchanges between the two sides in recent days.

This week, Cambodia ordered its border with Thailand closed, in response to Thailand’s barring of its nationals to cross what used to be a bustling border area.

Cambodia says it has done enough to show goodwill to Thailand. Thailand says it has in fact used restraint but needs to see concrete expressions of regret after the Jan. 29 violence in Phnom Penh – including compensation for damages incurred during the riots.

Highlighting the still-sensitive feelings today, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he thought Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ”understood the feelings of the Thai people” after the riots.

”You have to be cool, my friend. You must start to act and make a concrete move regarding payment (of compensation),” Thaksin said.

He was reacting to Hun Sen’s remarks Thursday that Thais letting Cambodians across the border to buy goods but not allowing Thais to do the same on the Cambodian side ”makes it seem as if Khmer are beggars”. He added: ”Our nation needs dignity. As a sovereign state, we can’t kneel to anyone.”

Cambodians are now allowed day passes to cross the border to buy essential goods. But Thais are not allowed to go over to Cambodia – where there are also casinos patronised by Thai clients that bring in 300 to 500 million baht a week (7 to 12 million U.S. dollars) – due to what officials say are safety concerns.

This is but the latest sign that repairing ties will not occur instantly, and Thai experts say, without more introspection into the deeper roots of the problem between the two countries and the January riots.

”When it comes to international relations, it is not only economic dimension but also social and cultural diplomacy. Most of all, magnanimity should always there in mind – that the counterparts must be treat fairly and equally,” said former Thai ambassador to United Nations Asda Jayanama.

After the riots, Thailand halted flights and downgraded its embassy. Technical and economic cooperation was suspended, and a crackdown started on undocumented workers from Cambodia.

Today, Thai flights to Cambodia are back but the wound on bilateral ties remains, despite the economic impact that the two countries – both investors and ordinary people – are experiencing.

At the border, many continue to wait for its opening to get back to selling goods there. There is also talk now of Cambodian plans to prevent Thai fishing trawlers from entering its waters.

Thai fisheries association chairman Thitikorn Lohakup said the crackdown on undocumented Cambodian workers would hurt the fisheries industry, which relies heavily on the cheap labour they provide. A short labour supply would pose a greater threat to Thai rather than Cambodian interests, he said.

The border closure has also slowed things down for Thai investors in Cambodia.

A procedure is underway for Thai businesses that got looted or damaged during the riots to claim compensation, but only little progress has been made.

Initial evaluations of the loss of Thai businesses in Phnom Penh amount to 2.2 billion baht (51 million dollars). A Thai team was in Phnom Penh late February for a sixth round of discussions.

”Though it is legitimate for Thailand to demand compensation for damages to its embassy and businesses, this should not be too much prioritised that we forget anything else that must be done,” said Prapat Thepchatree of the Centre for International Policy Studies at Thammasat University.

He says that concentrating only on economic means of addressing ties after the riots, like demanding compensation, would increase feelings of exploitation by the Cambodian people and push ties down a dead end.

He suggests that the two governments examine what was wrong in their relations before that allowed the explosion of riots, triggered by unverified reports that a Thai actress had said Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat temple was Thailand’s.

Opinion polls show that emotions are still running high in the wake of the January riots.

A recent poll by the Assumption Business Administration College showed that 92.1 percent of respondents said Thaksin’s handling of the anti-Thai riots was his best achievement. In another survey, 28.6 percent said the government should no longer allow the hiring of Cambodian workers.

But one Thai businessman said that the chilly ties are affecting the country’s own interests too, especially after Thailand sealed the border. Official figures show that the trade volume at the border was nearly 40 million baht (936,549 dollars) per day before the closure, and makes up 82 percent of total Thai-Cambodia trade.

”Damage to my business started only when Thailand ordered its border sealed,” said Thai businessman Somsak Witsaruttawong, who has run a consumer goods import business in Phnom Penh for 14 years.

Somsak told IPS that his business was barely affected by the January violence, but that now Cambodia is also sourcing not only from Thailand but countries like Vietnam and China. ”It is we Thai businessmen now who are in trouble with lost of our market shares,” he said.

In a way, Thailand is caught between political and economic priorities – mending ties in a way it is comfortable with, but mindful that the longer it stays away from Cambodia, there might be a decline in business and in market share there.

Almost all Thai investors and proprietors whose businesses were damaged would like to return to Cambodia and start afresh, including those who want to see compensation , says Kavi Chongkittavorn of the English-language newspaper ‘The Nation’.

But negative feelings from across the border will linger much longer if the Thai government continues its heavy focus on compensation, says Kavi.

Somsak says Thailand should instead work on correcting misunderstandings with Cambodia. To this day, he says, many Cambodians still believe that the rumours about the Thai actress’ remark and destruction of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok – which appeared to have fuelled the riots – are true.

 
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