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Abhisit talks relationships

I like Angkor Wat. I’ve been there with my family. That shows how deep Cambodia’s cultural, historical heritage goes back.

AFTER visiting Cambodia on Wednesday, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, told The Phnom Penh Post yesterday that following a period of confrontation and high tension, the two governments were back on track to rebuild trust in each other.

To cement the trust, Abhisit said he and Prime Minister Hun Sen had agreed to focus on resolving less thorny issues first, before moving on to the hard stuff.

“We agreed to give priority to areas of cooperation where there’s no conflict, so that we can build up trust and confidence,” Abhisit said. “If you pick the difficult issues first that can lead to tension and then you move the relationship in the wrong direction.”

Abhisit conceded that what had roiled bilateral ties recently were the disputed Preah Vihar temple and the naming of former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra as an economic adviser to Cambodia.

Since Thaksin’s role ended in August that issue was now dead, he said.

Preah Vihar is another matter. “It has become an issue that has given rise to a lot of tension,” Abhisit said.

When told that many outsiders were perplexed that a tiny area of isolated land near an ancient temple had brought two ASEAN neighbours close to warfare, he said all governments were always protective of their territory.

But he stressed: “There hasn’t been war. And both sides are anxious to avoid violence.”

Abhisit said overall relations continue to improve, as shown by booming border trade and cooperation on other fronts.

He also spoke of his good personal rapport with Hun Sen and how he valued the experience of the region’s longest-serving elected leader.

“I recognise that Prime Minister Hun Sen has worked with 10 Thai prime ministers,” Abhisit said.

“He has that experience, probably even more than normal politicians, given what he’s been through.”

The two leaders have met four times in the past three months and that has helped build up a good working relationship.

“Over the last three months there has been a vast improvement,” Abhisit said.

But he laughed when asked if he’d like to emulate Hun Sen and stay in power for more than a quarter of a century.

“I don’t have any plans to last 25 years,” he said. “Two terms is a good time for me. Six to eight years is long enough to get some things done and set some directions.”

Abhisit Vejjajiva, 46, has been prime minister of Thailand since December 2008, when he assumed office after protracted protests by the Yellow Shirt movement, which, like the youthful-looking PM, drew support from Bangkok’s establishment, including business, military and royalist elements.
He then endured a baptism of fire caused by a similarly protracted protest movement, this time by the Red Shirts who represented poorer rural people and supporters of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who has fled the country following his conviction on corruption charges.
Abhisit spoke to The Phnom Penh Post’s Regional Insider columnist Roger Mitton yesterday about ties with Cambodia and other issues. The following are edited excerpts:


Why did Cambodia-Thai relations deteriorate so much recently?
It’s not fair to say that because there are a few problems that have affected our bilateral relations, that the overall relationship is bad. Border trade is growing strongly, for instance, and our two peoples have more and more contacts. But there have been two factors that have affected relations recently. The first, clearly, has been Preah Vihar, which for a long time had not been a problem. But after the UNESCO World Heritage decision in 2008 both sides became very wary about what might happen and how that would affect the territorial claims, so it became an issue that has given rise to a lot of tension. The second factor was Thaksin and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s statements about Thaksin and the Thai courts. That affected our relationship. But now Thaksin is no longer an adviser to Cambodia so that is no longer a factor.

So bilateral ties are now good?
I would say this, when I first met PM Hun Sen when I assumed office, we agreed on two things: 1) we should not allow any single issue to cloud our overall relations; and 2) whenever there are problems, it’s our job to contain them and to avoid violence.

So the Thai-Cambodian atmosphere is harmonious now?
Certainly over the last three months there has been a vast improvement.
We’ve changed from a low point where both our respective ambassadors were back in their own country to now having a very good understanding of how we want to move forward. We’re going to open a new border crossing point soon, which indicates how bilateral cooperation is improving. Most of the problems were inherited from the past and we should now look to the future and see how cooperation can be expanded. It’s not unusual for two neighbouring countries with a common land and sea border to have tensions every now and then because all governments and all peoples are always very protective of their territory and their sovereign rights. But there hasn’t been war. And both sides are anxious to avoid violence.

Would you agree to United Nations or other international arbitration of your border disputes?
We don’t need it. And the UN Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] clearly stated at the recent ASEAN-UN Summit in Hanoi that he agreed. He came here and went to Phnom Penh and said that he’s seen that both governments were trying to work things out.

Given that Cambodia and Thailand both have major long-term energy needs, why is it taking you so long to sort out these overlapping offshore claims?
We’ve been negotiating for almost a decade. So far we cannot agree on how it should all be divided up. What we are trying to do now is build up trust. In my discussion with Hun Sen, we agreed that we should give priority to areas of cooperation where there’s no conflict, so that we can build up this trust and confidence. We can deal with the difficult issues later. If you pick the difficult ones first that can lead to tension and then you’ll move the relationship in the wrong direction.

Some criticise Thailand’s “big brother” attitude towards Cambodia.
In the past, when Indochina opened up, lots of Thai businesses went in and perhaps because of the regulatory environment and transition to a more market economy, some were seen to be exploitative. But over the past two decades, Thai governments have made it very clear that businesses that go into Cambodia have responsibilities and must avoid that kind of perception. We always say that the prosperity and stability of our neighbours means prosperity and stability for us.

How do you get along with Hun Sen, given the rather disparaging remarks that both sides have made about each other?
I’ve never made any and there’s never ever been any frosty atmosphere in our meetings. [My foreign minister] Kasit [Piromya] made some comments at the height of the tensions concerning the temple issue. But he has since worked with the Cambodian government on a number of issues over the last couple of years. Governments and leaders are often pressured by their own public and that can lead to comments that trigger off rounds of verbal conflicts. But I’ve been very careful. I don’t think I’ve ever made any such comments. Hun Sen and I have met four times in the last three months and we’ve agreed that it’s best to check things with each other directly rather than picking up on media reports that could lead to misinterpretation.

Are you able to draw upon the experience of Hun Sen, who is the region’s longest-serving elected leader?
I recognise that Hun Sen has been an elected leader in ASEAN for a long time and I’ve always said that we have to accept that he’s a very experienced and senior leader. He has worked with 10 Thai prime ministers. So, he has that experience – actually, probably even more than normal politicians would have, given what he’s been through.

He has good support among workers and ordinary people, while some say your support is more from affluent, urban classes.
That’s the picture that has often been presented, but it’s more of a regional issue. For instance, we enjoy something like 89 percent support in the south of Thailand. Does that mean the south has no working class? No rural people? It seems an odd conclusion to draw. The fact is political parties have different bases, some enjoy more urban support, some enjoy more rural support. What’s important is that you work for all of them. You’re not here just to work for your own supporters.

What could you learn from Cambodia – perhaps a freer press and an economy more open to foreign ownership?
We already have a free press. But foreign ownership is a different matter. Cambodia has been through an incredible history of nation building, especially in recent times. And now it is well integrated into ASEAN and playing an important part in subregional cooperation.

Do you like Cambodia?
I like Angkor Wat. I’ve been there with my family. That shows how deep Cambodia’s cultural, historical heritage goes back.

Given that both countries are democracies that hold multi-party elections, can you work together to accelerate the advent of democracy in your ASEAN partners Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam?
All these countries are in the process of opening up. Whether the pace is something that meets the expectations of outsiders is a different matter. But there’ll be both external and internal pressure for all countries to open up. A lot will opt for economic liberalisation as a first step, but it will be impossible to just liberalise the economy without opening up the political process.

Did you ask the Myanmar PM, who was also in Cambodia on Wednesday, about Aung San Suu Kyi being released?
Yes. I asked him about that. He said it is all according to the law.
He did not make any comments about the future of her activities. He just basically informed me that once the election results are official, it will take around 90 days to have the new assembly working.

You are happy to trade and engage with Myanmar?
We have a long common border. And we now have about 2 million workers from Myanmar. Plus we have to deal with the problems of border clashes and issues like drugs and trafficking. Unless we cooperate with them in terms of trade and investment, the problems will only get worse. So we discussed issues like special economic zones and the development of Dawei port. We hope these developments will not only reduce the problems that we both have, but will also create better lives for ordinary Myanmar people – and will also contribute to the natural evolution of a more liberal political and social environment.

I can’t see how not engaging would contribute to better lives for Myanmar.

Are you enjoying being PM?
Well, this is what I’ve wanted to do. It’s a tough job. I’m enjoying it not in the sense of getting great pleasure, but of getting things done. That’s what I enjoy.

How would you like to stay in the job for a quarter of a century like Hun Sen?
(laughs) I don’t have any plans to last 25 years. I think two terms is a good time frame for me. Two terms, if we get a second term, is long enough for you to get some things done and set some directions.
And if you don’t get anything done in six to eight years, you’re unlikely to get more done if you stay longer.

So no Thai election until the end of next year?
No, no, I think it will be earlier than that.



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