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No Love Lost Among Khmers and Thais

by Bertil Lintner

When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed Thaksin Shinawatra as "economic adviser" to the Phnom Penh government, Thailand reacted strongly, canceling a 2001 memorandum of understanding on overlapping maritime boundaries. Diplomats from both countries have been recalled, and a Thai engineer working in Cambodia has been arrested and charged with spying. This is hardly just a "spat"—which is how the Thai media seems to treat the current standoff. But it also is not the most serious crisis in the history of Thai-Cambodian relations.

Despite sharing the same religion and a similar culture, Thailand and Cambodia have seldom been on good terms. Dissidents from one country have often sought refuge in the other. The Cambodians have never forgotten that they once ruled over a mighty empire including large parts of present-day northeastern Thailand and southern Vietnam. Some of Thailand's most spectacular temples were built during this time, among them Phanom Rung in Buriram, one of three Khmer-speaking provinces in Thailand. Another Khmer temple complex from the same era—the 11th century Prasat Preah Vihear, which the Thais call Prasat Khao Phra Viharn—lies right on Cambodia's border with Thailand's Sisaket province, and the ownership of that site has been the subject of a long-standing dispute between the two nations.

In the late 18th century, the first king of the new Chakri dynasty in Thailand, then known as Siam, conquered Battambang and Siem Reap—including the holiest of Cambodian temples complexes, Angkor Wat. In the east, Vietnamese rulers took over the Mekong river delta region. What was left of Cambodia was placed under French "protection" in 1863. With French help, Cambodia regained Battambang and Siem Reap in 1907.

When World War II broke out, Thailand sided with Japan and attacked Cambodia. Under the terms of a peace treaty brokered by Japan, Thailand again seized control over Battambang and Siem Reap—excluding the area around Angkor Wat, which remained part of the then largely defunct French Indochina.

Thailand was forced to relinquish control of the two provinces in 1946, and, perhaps fearful of the French, did not try to occupy Preah Vihear, which is located on the top of a steep cliff with easy access from the Thai side—a drop of several hundred meters to the Cambodian lowlands beneath the main temple. But as soon as Cambodia became independent in 1953, Thai troops moved in and seized control of Preah Vihear.

At the same time, the Thais did what they could to weaken the regime of Cambodia's then strongman, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. As Cambodia scholars Justin Corfield and Laura Summers point out in their "historical dictionary" of Cambodia, "acting on the principle that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend', Thailand's then prime minister and dictator, Marshal Sarit Thanarat, lent his support to ... efforts to destabilize Sihanouk's state."

These forces also got backing from the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, which thought Prince Sihanouk was leaning too much toward China and the Soviet Union. The leader of the 1959 so-called Bangkok Plot against Sihanouk was Sam Sary, a Cambodian politician and former diplomat. He was killed, most probably by agents of the Cambodian military, around 1961—and his son, Sam Rainsy, is now the main opponent of Hun Sen's government.

Neither did the Cambodians hesitate to provide shelter for fugitives from Thailand. When Sarit seized power in a coup d'état in 1957, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, the ousted ex-strongman, fled by car and boat to Cambodia and on to Japan. In 1961, Cambodia severed diplomatic relations with Thailand because of the Bangkok Plot-and the dispute over Preah Vihear.

A complaint was also lodged with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which, on June 15, 1962, ruled that Preah Vihear belonged to Cambodia. The Thai army was prepared to go to war over the issue, but the king intervened and told them to respect the decision of the court.

Sihanouk was one of the first to climb the cliffs of Preah Vihear to make an offering to Buddhist monks in celebration of the victory in The Hague. But the Thai military never forgave him for humiliating them internationally. Support for various Cambodian rightist opposition groups continued until Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970.

Following the victory of the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, insurgents from northeastern units of the Communist Party of Thailand set up bases in Cambodia. A mixed force of CPT and the Khmer Rouge launched several raids across the border into Thailand. Those only came to a halt when the Khmer Rouge's main supporter, China, intervened.

When Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, its entire leadership fled to Thailand. The Vietnamese-installed regime to which Hun Sen belonged, first as the world's youngest foreign minister and later as prime minister, had to face a united front of the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk royalists and noncommunist forces. In the decades-long war that ensued, much aid came from Thailand to support the antigovernment forces.

The war came to an end after the United Nations intervened, and general elections were held in 1993. The Royalist FUNCINPEC won 45% of the vote, and Hun Sen's former communist party, now renamed the Cambodian People's Party, came second. A fragile coalition was formed and lasted until July 1997 when Hun Sen launched a bloody coup, ousting the sitting prime minister. Two days of fighting left at least 58 people dead and hundreds wounded.

It is not clear when Mr. Thaksin first befriended Hun Sen, but, somewhat ironically, it could have been in the wake of anti-Thai riots that rocked Phnom Penh in January 2003. The Cambodian press reported that a Thai actress said that Angkor Wat should belong to Thailand. Protesters set fire to the Thai embassy, and offices of Thai companies in the Cambodian capital were ransacked by angry mobs.

Among the Thai companies that saw their local offices destroyed was the telecom giant Shin Corp., founded by Mr. Thaksin and then owned by his family. Rather than seeking confrontation and compensation, Mr. Thaksin's people reportedly approached Hun Sen with conciliatory measures, including a set of golf clubs and other gifts.

Hun Sen's animosity toward Thailand goes back to the time when he was rejected by the United Nations, and the Thais and others supported armed resistance against his government in the 1980s. Yet he found a new "friend who is the enemy of my enemy" when Mr. Thaksin was overthrown in 2006. Meetings of Thaksin loyalists were held in Phnom Penh and, after their failed uprising in April this year, some of them fled into exile in Cambodia.

But this newfound friendship between Hun Sen's government and Mr. Thaksin and his followers could cost the latter dearly. Relations were already strained following Cambodia's request to have Preah Vihear listed as a World Heritage Site with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This request was granted, but Thailand insisted that the border around the temple had not been clearly demarcated and that the Thais and the Cambodians should jointly administer the site. The conflict brought the two countries close to armed confrontation in July-August 2008, and it remains unresolved.

The Thais can be fiercely nationalistic, too, and following Mr. Thaksin's November visit to Cambodia, newspaper columnists and politicians accused him of being a traitor.

Memories of the past weigh heavily on the shoulders of both the Thais and the Cambodians—but, as in the past, outside powers may also have played their part. Political analysts in the region speculate that the Cambodian government would not have invited Mr. Thaksin and thus risk serious bilateral problems with an important neighbor without support from a more powerful ally. "Hun Sen has acted with unprecedented confidence," a diplomatic source said. "He must be very sure of himself and his position."

In yet another political turnaround, China, once the main supporter of the Khmer Rouge, and which Hun Sen described in a 1988 essay as the root of all evil in Cambodia, has become his main ally. Following the 1997 coup, Western countries temporarily suspended all aid to Cambodia—while China came to Hun Sen's rescue. Today, Beijing is a major donor and investor in Cambodia, particularly in the garment, agriculture, mining and tourism industries.

It is anybody's guess whether China had a hand in Cambodia's decision to invite Mr. Thaksin, but it is hardly any secret that he, apart from being a brash businessman, is a fourth-generation Chinese immigrant who moved Thailand closer to China during his premiership. Thailand's current prime minister, Mr. Thaksin's nemesis Abhisit Vejjajiva, is of Chinese ancestry as well, but he was born in England and is far more Westernized in his style and outlook.

If this speculation is correct, the "spat" between Thailand and Cambodia may have a regional fallout as well. Who said the Cold War is over—or that Thai-Cambodian relations are purely about historical baggage?

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, December, 2009

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