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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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
"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."