Thai-Cambodia ties 'at their best now'

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) talks to Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha during an agreement signing ceremony at the Government House in Bangkok.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) talks to Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha during an agreement signing ceremony at the Government House in Bangkok. PHOTO: REUTERS

Premiers ink agreements to boost people and commerce links across shared border

Cambodian premier Hun Sen chaired a joint Cabinet meeting with his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday as part of a Bangkok trip drumming up investor interest in his country.

The two-day visit, which ended yesterday, represents a thawing of ties marked by tensions over border issues, illegal logging and migrant labour that have threatened to flare on occasions.

At a press conference yesterday, both premiers looked relaxed as they revealed plans to connect people and commerce across their shared border.

Train services between Bangkok and Phnom Penh are expected to start by the end of next year, while a "friendship bridge" between the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and Cambodia's Poi Pet has been proposed.

"Bilateral relations are at their best now," declared General Prayut at the podium.

COMMON GROUND

Cambodia pursues pragmatic foreign policy. Both countries share common interest in not allowing nationalist groups to destabilise their ties.

DR VANNARITH CHHEANG, who chairs the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.

Both countries also signed agreements to develop border facilities and manage migrant labour, and pledged to triple the current trade volume of US$5 billion (S$7 billion) by 2020. About 1 million Cambodian labourers now work in Thailand.

"I want to thank the Thai government and Thais who have supported the Cambodian people," said Mr Hun Sen, who was accompanied by his foreign minister Hor Namhong and defence minister Tea Banh.

Bilateral relations have been prickly over the years. In June last year, just after the Thai military staged a coup, fears of a crackdown on undocumented workers sent more than 140,000 Cambodians workers fleeing back across the border. Although the Thai junta denied there was a crackdown, the move was interpreted by analysts as an attempt to pressure Cambodia, where some "red shirt" activists aligned with the ousted civilian government had fled.

In 2009, Mr Hun Sen set off a diplomatic row by appointing fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as Cambodia's economic advisor. Two years later, troops from both sides clashed over the ancient Preah Vihear temple, which sits on a cliff at the border of the two countries and officially belongs to Cambodia.

A 2013 court ruling declared the vicinity of the temple also belonged to Cambodia but left it to the two countries to work out the boundaries. But "a thaw in relations is in order now," says Dr Paul Chambers, the director of research in Chiang Mai's Institute of South-east Asian Affairs.

There was scant mention of disputes as Mr Hun Sen delivered a keynote address to Thai and Cambodian businessmen on Friday, urging them to invest in an economy projected by the World Bank to grow at 6.9 per cent this year and next.

Dr Vannarith Chheang, who chairs the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, says: "Cambodia pursues a pragmatic foreign policy... Both countries share common interest in not allowing nationalist groups to destabilise their ties."

The Thai military government is widely expected to stay in power for a prolonged period even though drafters of a future constitution are working to a timeline that could allow for elections in 2017. It is seeking to boost economic growth, by creating special economic zones like the one in Sa Kaeo province next to Cambodia.

As part of discussions covered on the visit, both countries agreed to expedite the opening of additional international checkpoints to facilitate the movement of goods and promote their respective special economic zones by the border.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Thai-Cambodia ties 'at their best now''. Print Edition | Subscribe