In a bid to reset its contentious relationship with the Thai military, Cambodia yesterday laid out a lavish welcome for Thai coup leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on his maiden visit to the Kingdom, which was hailed by the government as “historic”.
With Thai flags flying at full staff outside the Peace Palace, General Prayuth was warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Hun Sen in the opulent reception hall with a brass band, honour guard and a line of bowing foreign diplomats.
The message was clear: Despite the premier’s close links with deposed Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin, the past was being swept under the red carpet the two men confidently walked upon.
“Prayuth said that the two countries have a long history and the relationship now is good. Disputes from the past should be dropped in order to move forward for development,” Hun Sen’s assistant and spokesman Eang Sophalleth told reporters.
Discussions on possible sources of tension – such as the yet-to-be implemented international court decision on land around the Preah Vihear temple, and overlapping maritime claims in the Gulf of Thailand – did not take place, with talks focusing largely on areas that could bring mutual economic gain.
Prayuth had told Thai media that he hoped the visit would pave the way for Cambodia to once again allow tourists to enter the Preah Vihear temple from Thailand. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong dismissed the suggestion following a meeting earlier in the day between Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his Thai counterpart, Tanasak Patimapragorn.
“The issue was not raised in the meeting, and in my personal opinion, I think that currently there are many tourists visiting Preah Vihear; there is a road link to Preah Vihear and hotels in the area are ready to serve tourists,” he said.
“Therefore, I think that it is not necessary to allow tourists to cross the border from Thailand to access Preah Vihear.”
The two leaders did ink an agreement on tourism cooperation, however, and they also signed off on a railway MoU that will see Aranyaprathet in Thailand connected to a line in Poipet that will run on to Phnom Penh.
Four new border checkpoints will also be established in Preah Vihear, Battamabang, Pursat and Oddar Meanchey provinces, while an anti-human trafficking MoU was also signed.
Prayuth had said yesterday that certain issues were being left off the table “in a bid to maintain warm relations”, the Bangkok Post reported.
But Sophalleth appeared to disagree that they were too sensitive.
“No I don’t see it that way. I see that as of now the discussion is focusing more on cooperation between the two countries in widespread areas which are more beneficial,” he said.
The shooting of illegal Cambodian loggers across the Thai border, however, was discussed.
“Hun Sen requested that Thailand make arrests and take legal action instead of shooting in order to avoid anger from Cambodian people,” Sophalleth said.
A scheduled joint press conference with the two leaders was cancelled at the last minute.
Pou Sovachana, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said that the two leaders were “playing a very safe card” to gauge public reactions to their new relationship.
“In general, it could be a good step for both sides to start establishing an introduction [like this] for the image,” he said.
“But in the long run, if they are not dealing with hard questions, you are going to get much more people criticising.”