Yesterday's highly anticipated visit by Thai Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul delivered plenty of niceties, but no apparent decisions on a range of issues confronting Cambodia and its western neighbour.
After a period of explosive relations between the two countries this year, triggered in February by the deadly clashes at Preah Vihear temple, the change of Thai government in August was widely welcomed in the Kingdom.
But issues including the resolution of the Preah Vihear dispute, a spate of shootings on the border and the unresolved demarcation of the oil-rich Overlapping Claims Area in the Gulf of Thailand all appear to remain in a holding pattern after Surapong’s meeting with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
“These are issues we will discuss within the Thai parliament first, before we can negotiate with the Cambodian government,” Surapong told the Post last night at the capital’s Sofitel hotel.
In regard to the border dispute at Preah Vihear, Surapong said Thailand “will obey the [International Court of Justice] order [to demilitarise the area] as soon as possible,” without offering any time frame.
The shootings of Cambodian loggers who have crossed the Thai border, meanwhile, will be an issue discussed “with parliament when we go back, and there will be a meeting to discuss border demarcation in February”, the Thai minister said.
As for a decision regarding the fate of the Overlapping Claims Area, it will require “much legal procedure with the Thai parliament first before we can negotiate”.
Despite the non-committals and ambiguities, one thing was certain: the warming relations between Cambodia and Thailand seem likely to continue as long as the Pheu Thai Party, led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is in power.
Yingluck’s older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, led the Thai government from 2001 to 2006 and developed a close bond with Prime Minister Hun Sen during that time.
“It is hard to deny that former prime minister Thaksin has a lead role in these relations,” Surapong told the Post. Thaksin, who was ousted in 2006, is in exile in Dubai.
“What is happening now is from the good relations in the past between the former prime minister and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Hun Sen and Thaksin are best friends, very true friends, eternal friends,” Surapong said.
“Hun Sen says he is like the younger brother, the bigger brother is the Sultan of Brunei and the middle brother is Thaksin.”
With Yingluck at the helm in Thailand, there has already been a significant easing of the tensions around Preah Vihear as well as a resuscitation of discussions to finalise a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries for the Overlapping Claims Area.
The OCA contains enough oil and gas to provide electricity to Thailand and Cambodia for the next 40 or 50 years, according to Thai Energy Minister Pichai Naripthaphan, who also visited Phnom Penh yesterday.
Singapore-based Thai politics expert Pavin Chachavalpongpun told the Post it was not surprising there had been a warming of relations under Yingluck’s government.
“This shows that much of the problems in this relationship were instigated by Thailand’s domestic politics,” Chachavalpongpun said yesterday.
“I believe the positive relations between the two countries depends on the longevity of the current government in Thailand. Things can change very rapidly in Thailand.”
Cambodia’s relations with her neighbour are also at the mercy of the relationship between the Thai government and its own military, a powerful player domestically and a potential deciding factor in any hoped for resolution of the Preah Vihear border dispute.
“The current army chief, Prayuth Chanocha, is an anti-Thaksin figure,” he said. “There is also an assumption of the government trying to reduce the role of the army in foreign affairs.”
Political difficulties within Thailand aside, the visiting ministers made it clear that fostering good relations with Cambodia will be a top priority for their government.
“Thailand will also send boats to the Cambodia Water Festival next year,” Pichai said. “I understand that is a very big deal here in Cambodia.”