In the wake of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s state visit to Thailand last weekend, the first in 12 years, much media coverage focused on the neighbours’ ambitious economic agreements, apparent goodwill and the political pragmatism implicit in the visit.
But less talked about was the two leaders’ talk on transnational crime, which has long been an issue along the Thai-Cambodian border. Brent Crane spoke with Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
What are the main forms of transnational crime across the Thailand-Cambodia border?
In purely economic terms, drug trafficking, especially of methamphetamine, would be worth the most, followed by environmental crimes like timber and wildlife trafficking, and then human trafficking.
But simple economic calculations do not account for other costs or impacts like the damage to victims of human trafficking. And with environmental crimes like timber trafficking, there is a real sense of urgency because forests and natural habitats are disappearing at an alarming pace and may never return.
How do both governments confront these issues?
Both countries work with us on our border management program, establishing what are called border liaison offices or BLOs. A BLO is a multi-agency set-up with different authorities that has a mirroring set-up on the opposite side of the border.
They are also working together with us on port control and port intelligence units to secure trade and immigration through sea ports. And they also participate in joint law enforcement operations and cooperative crime justice initiatives.
What are the major challenges to bi-national cooperation?
There are many challenges to cooperation, both practical and political. At a practical level, Cambodia and Thailand have different levels of resources to work with and different capacities.
At a political level, there is still some distance to go for the two countries to feel comfortable to share comprehensive information with each other quickly. But criminal organisations work very fast and states need to keep up.
What sorts of things came out of Hun Sen’s Thailand visit in regards to transnational crime cooperation?
We understand they discussed cross-border cooperation including crime and security, but we have not seen details of what was agreed.
Is there at least a consensus between the two countries on which issue to target most aggressively or do the countries have differing preferences?
The priority is on drug control, because it has historically been the most prominent transnational crime ... but also because it continues to be the largest form of transnational organised crime in money terms.
We are advocating for other issues like human trafficking and timber trafficking to receive as much attention as drug trafficking.
Human trafficking is a higher priority for Cambodia than timber trafficking, in part because it has been a problem longer and also because Cambodians are trafficked to Thailand ... Cambodia and Thailand are collaborating, but there is a long way to go to say they are effectively managing shared transnational crime challenges.
Interview edited for length and clarity.