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Thai Attitudes

Thai Attitudes

Thailand And Cambodia: Getting In Step


It is an unfortunate fact that Thailand is well on the way to losing most of the natural economic and political advantages it enjoys in Cambodia. Since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and the subsequent establishment of the Royal Cambodian Government in Phnom Penh, relations between the two countries have gone from bad to worse. The continuing failure to reach a decision on the repatriation of attempted Cambodian coup-maker Sin Song has only compounded a worsening problem.

No doubt it is true that fault lies on both sides; but at this point apportioning blame is less important, and certainly less constructive, than identifying where things have gone wrong, and what might be done to put Thai-Cambodian relations on a more satisfactory footing. To begin with, it would help if some Thai politicians and businessmen would try to see things from a Cambodian standpoint.

Cambodia is a small country with a long and cultured history. Between approximately the 9th and 12th centuries AD Cambodian territories extended over most of Laos, central Thailand and southern Vietnam. The Khmer state - centralised, authoritarian and magnificent - reached the summit of its achievement in the building of Angkor, a complex which still awes the mind eight centuries on.

Since that time, Cambodia has consistently diminished in size, due mainly to the southward advance of two vigorous, rival peoples - the Thais and the Vietnamese. This historic fact is the fundament and origin of the Khmer worldview, colouring all Cambodian perceptions of its bigger, expansionist neighbours. And yet, that said, Cambodian views of Thailand and Vietnam also differ greatly.

The Vietnamese, or yuon - a Khmer term meaning "people from the north" - are widely disliked and feared. Whereas the Thais and the Cambodians share an Indic, Theravada Buddhist culture, the Viets represent a different, Sinitic world order. The Thais took more than just land from the Cambodians - they acquired a writing system, a royal court language, and many aspects of Khmer cultural and religious tradition. The Viets, by contrast, took only land - and a lot of it, including the Mekong Delta region, which Cambodian nationalists still refer to as Kampuchea Krom, and regard as occupied territory.

All of which should give Thailand a natural advantage in its dealings with Cambodia. In historical terms, the Cambodians may not trust the Thais - but they certainly don't hate and fear them like they do the Vietnamese. So why have relations between Bangkok and Phnom Penh deteriorated so badly in recent years, and what can be done to reverse this trend?

In pre-colonial times Thailand and Vietnam traditionally competed for political control over the unfortunate Cambodians. This situation remained essentially unchanged during the colonial period, with the French assuming the role of the Vietnamese in their rivalry with the Thais. In the post-colonial period, ushered in by the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Vietnamese resumed their historic role, and by 1975 - as the last American officials departed the USA's Saigon embassy by helicopter, and Khmer Rouge guerrillas forced their way into Phnom Penh - it appeared as though the Vietnamese dream of an Indochinese Federation was at last to be realised.

Not a bit of it. We now know destruction of the hated yuon was the holy grail of the Khmer Rouge. Resistance to Hanoi's influence abroad, expulsion or massacre of Viet Kieu in Cambodia, and - ultimately - the re-conquest of Kampuchea Krom were the main driving force behind Pol Pot and his fellow ideologues. Accordingly, during the Khmer Rouge years of power between 1975 and 1979, conflict with Vietnam dominated Phnom Penh's programme, whilst relations with Thailand remained a - sometimes bloody - sideshow.

All this was to change following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December, 1979. With a pro-Vietnamese puppet government installed in Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, once again in their natural jungle terrain, turned to Thailand, and to Thailand's Western and Chinese allies, for support. The Thais responded vigorously. Not only were their historic Viet rivals in trouble, but there was money to be made as well.

Over the next decade relations between Thailand and the Khmer Rouge grew close indeed - and with the tacit support of both Washington and Beijing. Pol Pot and other senior Khmer Rouge leaders were reported to enjoy the protection of the Thai military, and to have residences in Trat province. Ta Mok, the notorious one-legged "butcher" whose fiefdom in southern Cambodia had been the bloodiest of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, was rumoured to have a house in Surin and extensive business interests in that province.

On the Cambodian side of the border, in areas under Khmer Rouge control, Thai businessmen came and went with impunity, but also without the sanction or approval of Phnom Penh. Pailin, the Khmer Rouge "capital", became an adjunct of the neighbouring Thai economy, whilst the surrounding region was stripped of its natural resources to line the pockets of the Chonburi Mafia and fill the bandoliers of the Khmer resistance.

In 1991, following the Paris Peace Agreement and the subsequent establishment of a Royal Cambodian Government, all this should have come to an end. Vietnam had been forced to withdraw its forces, a sovereign authority was established in Phnom Penh after free, UN-supervised elections, and the Khmer Rouge were no longer useful or necessary allies.

Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell local Thai businessmen and elements of the Thai military that things had changed. For fully three years such people - acting without government sanction but also without a great deal of official intervention - continued to supply, protect and deal with the Khmer Rouge on an ad hoc basis, effectively placing short-term personal gain above the long-term economic and financial interests of Thailand.

This situation was gradually rectified during 1994 as the Thai authorities, prodded into tardy action by American and especially Australian protest, moved to curtail unofficial support for the Khmer Rouge. By this time, however, serious damage had already been done to Cambodian-Thai relations.

Nor have bilateral relations faired much better away from the border. With the Viets vanquished - or at least temporarily discomfited - Thai entrepreneurs arrived in Phnom Penh to enjoy the fruits of "victory". Armed not with M16s, but with credit cards and mobile phones, too many of them had treated Cambodia like subject territory, awakening memories of Thai imperialism in times past. The Cambodians still don't hate the Thais, or fear them as they do the Vietnamese - but they both resent, and are envious of, open displays of nouveau riche arrogance.

This is not to suggest that the Thais are wholly to blame. After thirty years of almost continuous warfare, including four years of Khmer Rouge barbarity which virtually eliminated the professional and business classes, Cambodians are having to re-learn the rules of commerce almost from scratch. They need to, and should, do much of that business with their newly-industrialised neighbour to the west.

Sadly, the record to date has not been encouraging. Commercial relations went into sharp decline in December, 1993, when the Cambodian authorities ordered the Thai-owned Phnom Penh Floating Hotel towed away from its prime location in front of the Royal Palace. Shortly thereafter, a large group of Phnom Penh shopkeepers began to boycott a Thai-developed shopping centre, demanding lower rental fees.

Bilateral relations deteriorated further following the failed coup last July. The Khmer authorities suspect senior Thai business interests of backing - possibly even of initiating - the coup, and are vainly demanding the return of senior plotter Sin Song, who is now in Thai custody. Shortly after the coup attempt AKP, the Cambodian state news agency, issued a statement accusing Thailand of "seeking the disintegration of the Royal Government of Cambodia with the aim of economically dominating the region". The release concluded with the statement: "We are small and weak, but we will never accept the insults coming from our hypocritical neighbour".

From a Cambodian point of view, the Thais have been behaving with untoward arrogance. Like Laos, Cambodia doesn't wish to be treated as a "younger brother" in a pi-nong relationship with the Thais - and it is clear that any attempt to establish such a relationship with Cambodia can only lead to a widening rift between the two countries.

Nor, from a dispassionate point of view, can Thai businessmen afford further to antagonise the Cambodian authorities. It is true that in recent years Thailand has emerged as an influential, medium-sized economic power, at least a decade ahead of its traditional Vietnamese rival in Cambodia. Yet this is no longer the early 19th century, when Thai and Viet could compete for dominance over Cambodia untroubled by external interference. This is the late 20th century, and there are other players in the game.

In regional terms both Malaysia and, especially, Singapore are sweeping the board in Cambodian investment projects, whilst Thailand is in danger of being sidelined. Further afield Cambodia is experiencing a surge of investments from Taiwan and Japan. Korea - and even the People's Republic of China - are unlikely to be left far behind.

Then there are the countries of the West, particularly France and Australia, which are keen to see a united and independent Cambodia emerge, not only from the threat of the Khmer Rouge, but also from the shadow of Thai or Vietnamese domination. These are political facts of life, and Thailand's status as an emerging medium-sized economic power in the region is not going to change them.

The most striking indication of Phnom Penh's dissatisfaction was its recent decision to replace Thai-owned Cambodia International Airlines with its own national carrier, Royal Air Cambodge - a joint venture with a subsidiary of Malaysian Air Services. CIA claims that the Cambodian authorities are in breach of contract, having ordered a shut-down of services at 24 hours notice. The Cambodian government denies any impropriety, and insists that CIA received numerous warnings over the course of the past year. Either way, Thailand has lost out.

The Royal Cambodian Government is particularly unhappy about long-term concessions agreed between Thai businessmen and the former Hun Sen authorities prior to the 1991 elections. CIA's 30 year contract is cited as one such example; another is Shinawatra's 90-year contract for television broadcasting rights in Cambodia (now reduced to 30 years).

Regardless of the legality of such agreements, they make little sense and are damaging, rather than constructive, to Thai national interests. Common sense dictates that no independent nation willingly relinquishes control for long periods of time of such fundamental services as the mass media and national air services. Agreements of this kind, signed by the concessionary at times of weakness, inevitably lead to subsequent dispute; creating a legacy of mistrust and resentment.

China still hasn't forgiven Japan for the infamous "Twenty One Demands" foisted on it at a time of weakness in 1918. Thailand, a country which aspires to becoming the "Gateway to Indochina", should bear this in mind. Put simply, taking advantage of Cambodia in the short term is a policy of diminishing returns, leading ultimately to Thailand's disadvantage. By contrast, given the close cultural and historic links which exist between the two countries, a policy of friendly cooperation based on mutual respect and equality, would give Thailand a big advantage in Cambodia.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by Pictures From History - © CPA Media