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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Poipet back in business as border reopens

Poipet back in business as border reopens


Some were less surprised than others by the March 21 agreement between Senior

Minister Sok An and Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai to resume

overland border crossings between the two countries.

Senior Minister Sok An, left, and Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai celebrate the border reopening with a ceremonial handshake in Poipet on March 21.

When Sok An and his

entourage stopped at the Holiday Palace Casino for pre-meeting refreshments,

Okhna Kok An, owner of the Golden Crown Club Casino across the road, said he was

optimistic the border would open that day.

Sure enough, that afternoon

the two ministers returned from their talks on the Thai side and announced some

progress in bringing relations back to normal.

"We had a fruitful result

at the meeting," said Sok An. "I used the ideas of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Mr

Surakiart used the ideas of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.


importantly, this morning we agreed to reopen Poipet and the other borders, and

agreed to provide the same amount of safety to nationals of the two countries

crossing the border for trade as before the January 29


Immediately after the delegations had left, a handful of

high-spirited Thai gamblers skipped across the border, chatting about which

casino to visit.

But Cambodia's border guards weren't prepared when

hundreds of their own countrymen streamed the other way. When told of the

developments directly after the reopening ceremony, the shocked guards bolted

from their office to resume their posts.

Since the border is the essence

of Poipet's economic well-being, the reopening was welcome news at the most

widely used checkpoint between the two countries.

"Hope is back," said

Mike Fennema, project coordinator for ZOA Refugee Care in Poipet. "They are

encouraged because there's more work now. You can feel it in the


ZOA's development projects aim to both improve infrastructure

and train people in the commune. The NGO became concerned about local

livelihoods after Hun Sen abruptly announced March 5 that Cambodians could no

longer cross the border.

He said the action was taken to protect

Cambodians from harm by overzealous Thai border officials and unequal trade

practices where, in the wake of the January 29 riots, Thais were still not

allowed to cross. He told a crowd the Cambodian government would treat Thais as

the Thai government treated Cambodians, and claimed that the Kingdom was not

dependent on its richer neighbor.

"If there are no goods from Thailand,

don't worry. We have many goods from China, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia," he

said in his fiery speech. "Our nation needs dignity. As a sovereign state, we

can't kneel to anyone."

Despite government statements to the contrary, a

ZOA study released March 12 showed that the situation was rapidly turning into a

crisis for Poipet's residents, since impoverished villagers had lost their means

of income.

Understanding the Impacts of the Border Closure in Poipet

surveyed 140 families in 14 villages. After receiving the findings, the World

Food Programme decided March 18 to work with ZOA to hand out rice in


Of those interviewed by ZOA, 59 percent said they were in a very

difficult situation. Village leaders said that nearly four-fifths of the

population were dependent on the border being open for their livelihood. In some

villages, leaders said no one had returned to their homes elsewhere in the

country; in others up to half had left.

"Definitely this is the toughest

situation people here have been in since I've come," says ZOA's Fennema, who has

worked in Poipet over several years.

Fennema said people were forced to

sell their possessions such as motorbikes, clothes and even water jars provided

by ZOA. The result was that the rich became richer and the poor became poorer.

He predicted lasting effects, particularly on the 10 percent in the

commune who were hardest hit. The very poor, especially those who borrowed

money, would remain indebted for a long time. Fennema estimated that up to 20

percent of Poipet's population of 70,000 left while the border was closed, but

thought they would return soon.

"The majority stayed because there were

rumors. They expected the border to open," he said. "They decided to just hold

on, hoping the border would open."

Some food aid did get through to

struggling villagers. The border hamlet of Tuol Prasat Thmei received a rice

donation from the commune chief of 4 kilograms for each of its 30 families the

day before the border reopened. However its residents told the Post on March 21,

just before the announcement was made, that few had any food.

Shop owner

Seiy Hean sold all his stock to his neighbors on credit, with the promise they

would repay him when they got work.

"We were glad when we heard the

[Thai] Embassy was on fire. But after, we have suffered," said Hean gesturing at

his store's bare shelves. "We're doing nothing now. We just sit around and


He and his wife had enough food to support themselves and their

seven children, but the rest of the village said they did not.

The chief

means of income there is pulling carts of goods to and from Thailand. Many also

cut trees or "bamboo fruit" in the nearby landmine-infested forest.


of us don't have enough food," said firewood cutter Toy Chana. She held several

one-baht coins as she bet in a fierce game of Loto with her neighbors. "As you

can see, we don't have any work to do here. If we go to cut trees or bamboo

fruit we have to contend with landmines."

All of the villagers correctly

predicted that the border would soon open, and felt that they would be able to

find work. They said they were compelled to remain in the village as there was

no land available in their home provinces.

"Now we're thinking what to do

to solve our problems," said Chay Mom hours before the border was opened. "We've

had to sell our chickens to buy rice."

Despite the hardship that resulted

from the closure, the villagers of Tuol Prasat Thmei said they supported the

government's action. They gave examples of abuse, intimidation and robbery they

had suffered from Thai officials when working across the border.


cannot help each other because none of us has enough food," said woodcutter

Chana. "But it's better than the Thais making us suffer."

However that

was not the general feeling at the Poipet checkpoint on March 20, the night

before the ministers reached their agreement. Traders gathered at the nearby

roundabout and stared glumly in the direction of Thailand.

"We want the

border to reopen. We're not happy with the government closing it," said trader

An Reth. "I don't understand the ideas of the government, and we have never

thought about the politics. We are from different provinces and we are here to

earn a living. We don't have enough land to grow rice or build a


Since Sok An and Surakiart had their meeting, goods have

crisscrossed the border, with numerous cement trucks rolling in to help with

casino construction. Poipet is again a bustling border town and Cambodians are

crossing to Thailand in search of work.

Bun Hor heads the Poipet

checkpoint. He said at least 2,000 Cambodians a day have crossed into Thailand

since it reopened.

"The work situation across the border is returning to

the way it was before the riots," said Hor. "The Cambodian and Thai authorities

have made efforts to provide safety for the people."

However, one

complaint by traders who make an average of 80 baht ($2) a day is that border

officials have been charging them 10 baht every time they use the checkpoint.

Previously 10 baht secured a one-day border pass. Since they cross the border

around six times a day, traders say it the increased charges make it difficult

to earn a living.

In his announcement of the reopening, Thailand's

Surakiart said the process of normalization "will be done step by step". The two

countries later said they would also establish a cultural association to improve

mutual understanding.

Poipet commune chief Sok Sovann, a member of the

Sam Rainsy Party, said banning Thais entering Cambodia had only affected the

casinos, which provided no benefits to villagers. He said the casinos make at

least $20 million a month, but that little went to the national


Golden Crown Club owner Kok An said he had cut 70 percent of his

staff while the border was closed, but denied reports he helped pay the tab of

nearly $6 million for the burned out Thai Embassy.

"It's not true that I

paid for the compensation," he said. "I believe the government has enough money

to pay for that."

He also played down trucking construction materials

across the border while it was closed.

"There was some construction I'd

already paid for," he said. "I had to ask the government to give special

permission. Of course some newspapers published that it was done and I had to


The day after the ministers' meeting, the Bangkok Post reported

that the border only opened after Phnom Penh agreed to a precondition set by

Thai PM Shinawatra: Cambodia reportedly had to show its sincerity by agreeing to

pay for damages to at least one of 16 Thai-owned businesses affected by riots,

the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel.

Thai charge d'affaires Kosit Chatpaiboon said

he did not know whether there were preconditions, but felt relations would

improve rapidly.

"I've heard they nearly finalized the deal," he told the

Post. "The main condition is that both sides have a good feeling and both sides

do their best to improve relations."



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