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Dispute passes border brothers by

091125_08
Tourists wait in line to enter Cambodia at Koh Kong province’s Cham Yeam border checkpoint.

Trade across the Koh Kong border crossing has been relatively unaffected by rising tension between Cambodia and Thailand, though locals say tourists appear more easily scared off

The people of Trat consider the people of Koh Kong their brothers, so there is no enmity at all....

Koh Kong
Despite the escalating political spat between Cambodia and Thailand in recent weeks, officials said Tuesday that cross-border movement of goods and labour between Cambodia’s Koh Kong province and neighbouring Trat province in Thailand remained normal.

However, tourist numbers have declined, said Suos Sokdara, chief of Cambodian immigration police at the Cham Yeam crossing between the two provinces.

“This is normally peak season, with roughly 100 tourists crossing the border each day,” he said. “But in recent weeks it’s been quiet, only about 20 tourists a day, due to safety concerns set off by all the political tension.”

Prathip Chongsubthum, vice governor of Thailand’s Trat province, said that the two provinces’ relative immunity to political turmoil was long-established.

“The people of Trat consider the people of Koh Kong their brothers, so there is no enmity at all between the two provinces,” he said.
“Because once, in the past, Koh Kong was Thai people and Thai people were Koh Kong – it’s different from other border provinces.”

Prathip Chongsubthum said there were no official trade figures between the two border provinces, but that, generally, Trat exports fruits, vegetables and consumer goods to Koh Kong, while in return, Koh Kong exports a smaller volume of foodstuffs, mostly fish, to Trat.

Prasoet Siri, chairman of the Trat Chamber of Commerce, said that despite the ongoing dispute between the two governments, Cambodian and Thai merchants at the border market get along well.

“They are like brothers. There is never a fight,” he said. “However, both sides have been buying goods to stockpile because the merchants are waiting to see what will happen, lowering market activity by 30 percent over the last few months.”

Bun Na, a 45-year-old Koh Kong resident who has navigated a boat transporting goods from Trat province’s S Kittawan Port for 10 years, said there was no noticeable change in shipping patterns.

“I do not see any decline in goods shipments from this port over to Koh Kong,” said Bun Na. “Thai merchants here told me that Cambodians are nearly their sole prospects. If they do not do business with the Khmer, there will be no one to do business with.”

Bun Na said that trade with Koh Kong was only active on the Thai side because there were few products exported to Thailand from Koh Kong.
“Anytime I ship consumer goods or construction materials from Thailand to Koh Kong, my boat returns empty,” he said.

Thailand’s exports to the Kingdom were worth just over US$1 billion in the first eight months of the year, a drop of 30.29 percent on the same period last year and more than 25 times Cambodia’s exports in the other direction.

Up to the end of August, the Kingdom exported just $39 million in goods to Thailand, according to figures from the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh – mostly garments, unprocessed agricultural products, fish and recyclable metal.

Discussing the possibility of border closures in a November 8 speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen said, “People from both sides will lose benefits [from closing border gates], but Cambodia will not face a huge income loss like Thailand,” adding that such a move by Bangkok would be against the will of its own people.

Chan Ra, a jewellery vendor at the Hadlex market on the Thai border with Koh Kong, said: “95 percent of customers are Thais, and they still do shopping in the market as normal; we do not see any hostility among the people,” he said.

Prasoet Siri said that Hadlex market on the Thai side of border had 60 stalls, and that 70 percent of vendors there were Cambodian.

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