An article published in IPP Review.
By Kimkong Heng
The relations between Cambodia and Thailand can be appropriately labelled as a love-hate relationship, given the long history of bilateral ties between the two neighboring countries. However, racial hatred, arguably, seems to have prevailed among many, if not most, of the people of both countries, at least during the three-year Cambodian-Thai border dispute that started in July 2008 over the territory surrounding the 11th century Preah Vihear Temple (known as Phra Viharn in Thailand). The deep hatred and open hostility should come as no surprise if one examines the ancient and modern history of the relations between the two countries.
However, given their current political, economic and diplomatic relations, both countries can enhance their generally troubled relationship through a reciprocal exchange of mutual respect. There are many possibilities ranging from government-to-government initiatives to people-to-people connectivity programs to cultivate and nurture mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance between the people of both nations. Only when a sense of mutual respect is prevalent among Cambodian and Thai people, can harmonious bilateral relations between the two neighbors be maintained and strengthened.
From the Cambodian historical perspective, Thailand was a major threat to Cambodia’s land, although it is less of a threat compared to its Vietnamese counterpart to the present-day Cambodia. Every Cambodian, young and old, knows that Thailand was Cambodia’s traditional enemy and that Cambodia was the victim of devastating Thai (called Siam by most Cambodians) attacks on numerous occasions. There were two infamous invasions of Cambodia by the Siamese. One was the Siamese invasion of Angkor in 1431 and another was the invasion of Longvek, an ancient Cambodian capital (now located in Kampong Chhnang province), in 1593. The collapse of both ancient Khmer cities marked the downward trajectory of the Khmer Empire which was already in decline from the 13th to the 19th centuries, a historical period which saw Cambodia’s vast territory lost to Thailand and Vietnam until Cambodia became a French colony in 1863 under King Norodom’s reign.
Under the French, Cambodia-Thailand relations seemed to have been restored and improved, with a number of treaties signed between Siam and France, on Cambodia’s behalf. Following Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, however, Cambodia-Thailand relations deteriorated when Thailand in 1954 occupied Preah Vihear by force. Cambodia then responded to the Thai invasion by bringing a legal case against Thailand before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1959. The ICJ in 1962 ruled that Cambodia was the rightful owner of Preah Vihear Temple. Relations between both countries could not be worse at that time.
Three decades later, after Cambodia’s UN-sponsored national election in 1993, the two neighbors began to establish good relations with each other. However, their seemingly good relationship was brief and fragile. In 2003, a violent riot broke out after a Thai actress was reported to have awkwardly claimed that Angkor Wat should be returned to Thailand. The incident saw the bilateral relations between the two neighbors descend to the worst possible level, once again. When their bilateral ties later seemed to normalize and improve, both governments again broke off their diplomatic relations. This was a result of Thai troops being stationed in a disputed area of land adjacent to the Preah Vihear Temple after the temple was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008. Thailand’s troop deployment invited Cambodia to do the same, which led to a series of fierce border clashes and skirmishes between 2008 and 2011, despite several talks and meetings between the two governments.
As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange.
With ASEAN mediation (although no effective action was taken), domestic political developments in both countries, and the ICJ Judgment on Cambodia’s request for a reinterpretation of the 1962 judgment in November 2013, the Cambodian-Thai border conflict was resolved, and bilateral relations improved. Two years later Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-ocha, signed a series of agreements aimed at cementing bilateral ties between both countries. They agreed to develop border facilities, manage migrant labor, and triple their current trade volume to USD 15 billion by 2020.
Nevertheless, a resurgence of nationalism in both countries, often manipulated by politicians, is likely to impact their bilateral relations. As Kimly Ngoun has noted, many issues such as the historical legacy of hostility and mistrust, different constructions of history by Cambodian and Thai elites, and political propaganda about national territory and sovereignty, remain to be addressed, otherwise future conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is inevitable.
All things considered, genuine and mutual respect between the people of both nations should be cultivated and nurtured. In addition to efforts at the institutional and governmental levels to salvage the troubled relationship between the two countries, individuals have crucial roles to play. As argued in another article, Cambodian youth have played a pivotal role in shaping Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam. And Thailand should not be an exception. Cambodian people, particularly the younger generation, therefore, should not dwell on their dark history; instead, they should use lessons from history to help them make informed and impartial judgments when dealing with issues concerning Thailand and its people. They should, moreover, focus on developing themselves by engaging in different forms of personal and professional development. Only when each and every Cambodian is more educated, pragmatic, open-minded, and culturally competent, will Cambodia be more competitive and well-received in its neighboring countries’ eyes and on the international stage.
Thus, everyone, both Cambodians and Thais, have a vital role to play in improving and fostering good relations between the two old rivals. In this regard, Cambodian people must learn to embrace the culture, values, and aspirations of their Thai counterparts, although those Thai cultural aspects, as claimed by Cambodians, originally derived from Khmer culture. This cultural acceptance must be a collective effort requiring mutual respect. The Thai side must also pursue the same initiative — respecting Cambodian culture, values, and aspirations despite having very similar cultural identity and practices.
There are a myriad of options and actions which can be taken to promote this free and frank exchange of mutual respect. One option both governments have pursued but will still requires their serious attention is to improve border facilities and security to enhance trade, tourism, and mobility. This of course implies the demarcation of both land and maritime borders. With more development projects geared towards areas along the Cambodian-Thai border, chances are high for citizens of both countries to interact economically, culturally, and socially, leading to better mutual understanding and trust.
New initiatives for cultural and educational exchanges or projects involving youth engagement and interactions, such as study exchange programs and youth group camping, should be further encouraged and implemented. Moreover, initiatives to enhance business and investment and to improve deep institutional ties and physical infrastructure links between Cambodia and Thailand are essential because, in their absence, people-to-people links would be difficult, if not impossible. The mutual exchange of respect and understanding must therefore be fostered at all levels, although the emphasis should be targeted at the grassroots level by fully engaging individuals and the youth of both countries.
The cultivation of mutual respect among the people of Cambodia and Thailand is clearly a prerequisite for the long-term healthy relationship between the two former enemies. As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange. To instill respect for one another, people of both nationalities must learn to be more outward-looking yet less self-important in their perceptions of their neighboring counterparts. It is probably wise for them to remember an old Khmer saying which goes, “In times of trouble, a good neighbor is better than a faraway relative.” Good neighbors must show one another mutual respect.
About the author
Kimkong Heng is an Assistant Dean for the School of Graduate Studies, The University of Cambodia.