Cross-border calm brings opportunity

Relations between Thailand and Cambodia have thawed in recent months, but greater understanding is needed before there will be any real warmth

The path to a visa-free zone within Asean is getting closer for Thais, as last month Thailand and Cambodia bilaterally revoked the need for entry visas for citizens on cross-border trips. The visa exemption is a ”gift” for the peoples of both countries to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations, which is being celebrated today. Only Burma has yet to give Thai citizens a visa exemption.

But making travel more convenient doesn’t mean smooth integration and a peaceful borderless union within Southeast Asia, especially with the neighbour to the east with whom we share such weighty historical baggage.

Nearly eight years ago, an angry mob rioted in Pnomh Penh following unsubstantiated reports in the Cambodian media that Thai TV star Suvanan Kongying had claimed Angkor Wat was ”stolen” from Thailand.

More recently another ancient sacred site has been the cause of a serious spat, after Cambodia succeeded in unilaterally registering the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple on the disputed border as a Unesco world heritage site in July, 2008.

Tensions eased earlier this month and it seems both sides have retreated from the issue for now.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has sparked a nationalistic campaign against the Unesco listing of the Hindu temple as a Cambodian site. But the PAD has postponed until Jan 25 a rally to oppose reconvening the Thai-Cambodian Joint Boundary Committee to discuss demining and demarcation priorities.

People in both countries are wondering how long the thaw will last and if it can be developed into a sustainable collaboration. For that to happen, deep-rooted conflicts _involving both superiority and inferiority complexes between the predominant ethnic groups in the two countries _ will have to be healed.

Ana Nov, 32, general manager of Ang Khmer Group, a translation, advertising and public relaetions company, said Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s appearance in Phnom Penh last month to formalise the visa exemption for up to 14 days of travel, already in effect, was a good starting point for closer relations between citizens of both countries.

She said that ”bad manners” shown by Thai border authorities are standing in the way of a civil bilateral environment.

”Of the more than 10 countries I have visited, only in Thailand have immigration police been insulting. They repeatedly said mai sa-at [unclean] as they were stamping my passport.

”Even the less-service minded and poorly-trained Vietnamese and Lao border police don’t look down upon tourists or talk nonsense like those at the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border crossing,” said the young woman, who speaks fluent Thai , English, Vietnamese and Khmer.

She said notions and gestures of superiority remain obstacles to improving relations between the two countries. She stressed the need for Thai authorities to treat all tourists equally and be mindful of the human rights of the tens of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand.

More knowledge of the high points in historical relations would also be helpful on both sides of the border, she said.

”At least Thais should know that at one point we helped Ayutthaya during the war with Myanmar,” she said.

She said that the PAD protest over Preah Vihear has prompted young Cambodians to support politicians who have ties to powerful people in China and Vietnam and who are in favour of buying more weapons to make the country look stronger.

However, many Cambodians, young and old alike, have no problems with Thailand. They continue to buy Thai products and enjoy watching Thai movies, she said.

Thida Khus, 59, shared a similar view.

”It would be helpful for both Khmer and Thai people to remember that we came from the same roots and that we have a lot of common aspects in our cultures and art that should help us understand each other better,” said Thida Khus, the executive director of Silaka, a support agency for private and public agencies in Cambodia.

She moved back to Cambodia after living in the US to work on empowering women in the political arena in the early 1990s.

”Political manipulation from either side to motivate hatred among our two nations and peoples will not benefit anybody,” said Thida Khus.

Kim Vuth, 32, a peace activist who works with the American Friends Service Committee, said the relationship between former enemies Germany and France could serve as an inspiration for Thailand and Cambodia to coexist peacefully in the future.

”After World War II, Germany and France organised many people-to-people activities and exchanges. They also developed a common history book which was used in both school systems,” said Kim Vuth.

He emphasised that peace building was not the job of governments alone. A critical mass of peace lovers is needed in both nations, so that the people could not be easily provoked into supporting violence and armed solutions, he added.

”The cost of war is too high. We should have learned that from world history, said Kim Vuth.

Chea Vannath, on the board of directors of Star Kampuchea, a Cambodian non-profit organisation dedicated to strengthening democracy and civil society, said media outlets in both countries play an important role in shaping and projecting cross-border images and thus can help ease or aggravate the tensions.

”Cultural, soft diplomacy exchanges in artistic, spiritual, social, agricultural, academic, and medical areas will be very important,” said Chea Vannath, who was traumatised by the Khmer Rouge regime but was able to escape to Thailand then to the US. She cited a need to bring medical care to remote areas of Cambodia.

”When Thailand and Cambodia have strong civil society networks in place that advocate peaceful coexistence, then we can hope for a change,” said Chea Vannath.

Sokhany Prak, executive director of the Cambodian Civil Society Partnership, said the present generation needs to stop listening to the old myths and ”work towards removing hatred and anger from our mindsets so as to have peaceful minds to build a good relationship between our countries”.

Sokhany Prak’s organisation is a key partner in the Cambodian Working Group for Peace, which, together with the Thai Working Group for Peace, is trying to find solutions to the cross-border tensions.

”The government has also supported our collaboration and this is a good sign. We need to prevent events like the torching of the Thai embassy from happening again,” said the 53 year old.

The Thai-Cambodian Association for Cultural Cooperation, which was set up soon after that 2003 incident, has recently obtained status as a legal foundation, which enables it to receive financial support from the Thai Foreign Ministry.

Tej Bunnag, former president of the association, said it has initiated several sociocultural measures, for example the translation of important books such as Pongsawadarn Chabab Luang Praserrt (Historical Texts Luang Prasert Version) into Khmer.

Mr Tej, who is a historian and a former foreign minister, said that it is important that we reproduce such texts for Cambodians at all levels to compare notes.

This in turn would make it possible for Cambodian high school and university students to learn history in an objective manner and hopefully reduce ill-intended nationalism.

He said the purpose was not to rewrite history, but to provide facts which have been objectively verified.

Mr Tej said no one could guarantee that there won’t be more violent flare-ups between the two nations.

Problems could be stirred up by some movements in both countries, he said, but added that ”there are really good-hearted people on both sides of the border who want to see peace and friendship, and we should try to work earnestly toward this goal”.

Angelina Jolie Joins Fight for Cambodian AIDS Victims

Two superstars — one a world-famous actress and one a world-renowned scientist — have teamed up to bring aid to vulnerable children around the world. More Video 1 2 3 4 5 PreviousNext VIDEO: Innovative products help solve some of the world’s gravest health problems. Watch: Students Designing a Better World VIDEO: Duke University Medical Center’s Dr. Neil Spector explains future of treatment. Watch: FDA Withdraws Avastin for Breast Cancer VIDEO: Memorial Hermann’s security executive Joseph Bellino comments on her actions. Watch: Woman Endangers Self to Protect Colleagues Oscar winner Angelina Jolie and Harvard researcher Dr. Anne Goldfeld, who co-directs the Global Health Committee, turned a chance meeting into an opportunity to help Cambodian children stricken with HIV and tuberculosis live full, healthy lives.

The two women met while flying into Cambodia in 2004, where Jolie was filming the hit “Tomb Raider” sequel and Goldfeld was returning to provide medical aid to children in need. The conversation the two struck up led to Jolie lending her support and funding for a center to bolster Goldfeld’s efforts. “There, sitting next to me, was Angelina Jolie and Maddox, her son,” Goldfeld said of that fateful flight. “I think I was so jet-lagged that I had the temerity to say, ‘You’re Angelina Jolie, aren’t you?'” Once they arrived in Cambodia, Goldfeld ended up taking Jolie to the dilapidated hospital where she was treating adults and children wasting away from diseases like AIDS and its common co-infection, tuberculosis.

Goldfeld, a professor at Harvard’s Immune Disease Institute, also told Jolie that children with AIDS in Cambodia often don’t get the care they need to survive, and are often stigmatized and cast out. This story is part of ABC News’ “Be the Change: Save a Life” initiative, a year-long series of broadcast and digital coverage focusing on global health issues. For more onTB in Cambodia, watch “World News” Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET. Click here for complete coverage and information on how you can personally make a difference. According to current estimates, approximately 14,000 Cambodian children are infected with HIV, and mother-to-child transmission of AIDS is one of the major causes of new infections.

After her visit to the hospital, Jolie decided to partner with Goldfeld on a new project to bring relief to Cambodian children. The result is The Maddox Chivan Children’s Center, named for Jolie’s Cambodian-born adopted son. The daycare facility for children afflicted by and affected by HIV opened in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in February 2006.

Here, ostracized children who’ve been kept out of school due to illness or social stigma are cared for and brought up to grade level. Children who need drugs are taught — along with their parents — how to administer the drugs, which if taken consistently, can keep them alive indefinitely.

Jolie and her partner Brad Pitt are actively engaged in the project, and have visited. ABC News’ Dan Harris and a camera crew were also granted a tour of the facility recently with Goldfeld, who praised of the center’s superstar benefactors.


“They’re very serious actors and they’re very serious humanitarians, they are role models for all of us” Goldfeld said.

So far, the Center, which has several major donors, has created some remarkable success stories. Yi How, a Cambodian boy, was on death’s door, suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis, when Goldfeld met him in 2006. His mother had recently died and he said he wanted to go to heaven to be with her.

Today, thanks to help from the Maddox Center, How is happy and healthy — and an aggressive soccer player.

“He got rid of his TB in six months, and now he’s completely stable. He’s 10, does great in school and he lives with his dad,” Goldfeld told ABC News. The center offers treatment, education, and hope to some of Cambodia’s most vulnerable children.

Joint concert held to mark 60th anniversary of Cambodia-Thailand diplomatic ties

PHNOM PENH, Dec. 18 (Xinhua) — A free concert to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Cambodia-Thailand diplomatic ties was held on Saturday afternoon at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Hall.

The Cambodia-Thailand cultural performance, featured musical and cultural shows by artists of the two countries, was also live telecast nationwide via the National Television of Cambodia and TV3 as well as to Thailand.

Khim Sarith, secretary of state of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said the concern was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between the two countries, which come on Sunday, and to exchange and strengthen the two nations’ cultural relations.

Nipit Intarasombut, Thailand culture minister, said during the opening ceremony that Thailand and Cambodia are close neighbors for ages and people of the two countries have good relations in culture, tradition and the same Buddhism.

“I believe that the art performance today will create the closer expansion of cooperation between the people of the two nations on all sectors and it is an event to reflect affection, solidarity, and mutual understanding between the people of the two countries,” he said.

This is the second joint concert between the two nations since the first one was held at the Indoor Stadium in Bangkok on Nov. 28.

Cambodia and Thailand have had border conflict just one week after Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Temple was registered as World Heritage Site in July 2008.

Since then the conflict started, military standoff has been on and off along the two countries’ border and several military clashes have already happened with recorded small causalities from both sides.

The border issue, however, has been eased as the top leaders of Cambodia and Thailand have held four meetings since September.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Dec. 6 at a graduation ceremony that the border situation between Cambodia and Thailand has now returned to the date before July 15, 2008.

Hun Sen also praised the joint Cambodia Thai concert on Nov. 28 at the Indoor Stadium in Bangkok, and live televised to Cambodia through the national television of Cambodia and TV3.

China asked to explain fate of Uighurs from Cambodia

BEIJING — Human Rights Watch has called on Beijing to explain the fate of 20 Uighurs deported from Cambodia a year ago who had sought asylum following deadly ethnic violence in China’s far-western Xinjiang region.

The Uighurs, members of a mainly Muslim minority group who have complained of oppression in Xinjiang, were handed over to China despite their application for UN refugee status, after Beijing had pressed Cambodia for their return.

China said they were wanted in connection with rioting that erupted in July 2009 in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi between Uighurs and China’s majority Han ethnic group that left nearly 200 people dead, according to official tolls. “Uighurs deported to China are at clear risk of torture,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director, Sophie Richardson, said in a statement released Friday in New York, where the group is based.

“China’s failure to account for any of those asylum seekers a year after their forced return is extremely worrying.” Cambodia’s decision to deport the Uighurs was quickly followed by a 1.2-billion-dollar aid and loan package from Beijing. China has rejected accusations of a link between the two. The Uighurs had expressed fears of persecution and torture if they were sent home to China, which implemented a massive security crackdown in Xinjiang following the violence. Phnom Penh said the group, which Beijing had labelled as “criminals”, was expelled in line with domestic law.

But the US, the European Union, the United Nations and rights groups deplored the move as an apparent breach of an international convention on refugees. “Both China and Cambodia should be held accountable for their flagrant disregard of their obligations under international law,” Richardson said. “This case is a stark reminder that no country should deport Uighur asylum seekers back to China.”