Riot helmets await their owners at a training exercise near Phnom Penh International Airport on March 6. The exercise was announced by police chief Hok Lundy in late February, ostensibly to crack down on potential troublemakers in the run-up to the July 27 general election. Some observers warned it was a sign of overkill following criticism from Thailand over Phnom Penhís poor handling of the January riots.
THE President of the National Assembly, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, has raised doubts
Cambodia can afford the estimated $50 million for damage inflicted on Thai interests
during the January 29 riots. His comments come after Bangkok said it would not normalize
relations until reparations were made.
"If we look at the poverty of Cambodia, I do not think we have the money to
pay for the damage, or any other means to solve the problem," Ranariddh told
the Post on March 12. "I will leave it to the government, and I expect the government
will report to the National Assembly."
And in another development related to the riots, King Norodom Sihanouk has indicated
he will grant a Royal pardon to any of the 60 students in jail awaiting trial who
are convicted of involvement in the riots.
That followed a press release on February 27 in which the King called for the release
of the students. Prime Minister Hun Sen replied that such a gesture was well-meant
but would undermine the judiciary.
Writing in the margins of the latest monthly bulletin (BMD), which is released March
14, the King stated his deep conviction that those who had been arrested were not
the real culprits.
"If these 60 are condemned and must remain in prison, I would permit myself,
in my capacity as Constitutional King and in conformity with that which the 1993
Constitution accords me ... to reprieve these 60, because, according to my intimate
conviction, the real guilty ones are not these 60," he wrote.
The Thai charge d'affaires, Kosit Chatpaiboon, would not comment on Prince Ranariddh's
remarks about a lack of money, but it seems unlikely they will impress Bangkok. The
past two weeks have seen an already shaky relationship deteriorate further as Prime
Minister Hun Sen's comments have grown increasingly vitriolic.
The situation took a turn for the worse on March 5 when the Ministry of Interior
ordered all border checkpoints closed between until further notice.
Hun Sen defended that decision the following day, saying the main reason was to ensure
the safety of Cambodian citizens. He said Cambodians who traveled to Thailand risked
death in that country's "war on drugs".
"I would be the victim of politics and history if I let the people go to die,"
Hun Sen said.
He told the crowd at the opening of a Siem Reap health center that the decision was
made after he was told of four instances where Cambodians had been killed or injured.
Hun Sen added angrily that the other reason was that Thailand had used the riots
to forge unequal trade relations.
"The Cambodian people are permitted to buy goods inside Thailand but the Thais
do not bring their goods to sell in Cambodia," he said. "It is not equal
and not just to have that kind of relationship in trade. It makes it seem as if Khmers
From now on, he said, Phnom Penh would treat Thais as Bangkok treated Cambodians.
He said Cambodia was not dependent on its wealthier neighbor.
"If there are no goods from Thailand, don't worry. We have many goods from China,
Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia," he said. "Our nation needs dignity. As
a sovereign state, we can't kneel to anyone."
Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh responded that relations would not
return to normal until Cambodia paid reparations.
Thailand's Kosit told the Post on March 12 that both sides were still in talks about
compensation for damage to government and private assets. He would not speculate
on the effect Hun Sen's comments might have on those talks.
One Phnom Penh-based diplomat said time was needed for heads to cool.
"I think it would be foolish for anyone to comment on statements from either
side of the border," he said.
Another said he thought it likely the two sides would soon sort out their differences.
All aspects of negotiations had been moving forward except at the border, where Thailand
had seized the upper hand.
"They have to make themselves look tough for some of their constituency,"
he said of Phnom Penh's hard-line tactics. "They're just trying to get a good
But as evidence the border situation was not too dire, the diplomat cited the fact
that King Sihanouk has decided to leave for medical treatment in Beijing. The King
postponed his trip in mid-February citing rising domestic political tensions.
However in a letter to his penfriend Ruom Ritt dated March 8, he wrote that his doctors
had insisted he return to Beijing for treatment for "numerous and serious health
The King went on to write: "I don't think I will be able to live beyond several
months ... or several years (as the Christians say: 'It is the good God who decides')."
China is involved in more than treating the King's ailments. There are indications
Beijing will play a role in the flagging reconciliation efforts. Immediately after
the riots, the Chinese government issued a statement saying it was gravely concerned
and hoped the issue could be resolved as soon as possible.
A delegation led by Wang Jarui, vice-chairman of the Chinese Communist Party's external
relations department, visited Cambodia between March 7-10 and met with Hun Sen and
other senior government officials. However, Chinese Embassy officials in Phnom Penh
said they were not privy to the talks and would not comment on the role their nation
While talks drag on, Cambodians on the border are beginning to feel the pinch. One
Poipet border official said 300 people are having trouble finding food and had been
given three tons of rice by the commune chief.
Angry merchants hurled insults at border guards when the government briefly lifted
its border trade ban to allow a convoy of trucks to deliver construction material
from Thailand to renovate the Golden Crown Club Casino. Businessman Kok Ahn, who
owns the casino, is said to have close ties with Hun Sen.
Most people supported the decision of the government to close checkpoints, said the
border official, but were concerned how it would affect living conditions in the
"If the border isn't re-opened soon, the government should be responsible for
feeding those people," he concluded.