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”.


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