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Rising above socio-economic challenges posed by Covid-19

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Daily crossings by Cambodians into Thailand for trade are a common sight at international border checkpoints.

Rising above socio-economic challenges posed by Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic may have reshaped communities and economies globally with the adoption of social distancing, but for neighbours Thailand and Cambodia, the fostering of closer bilateral ties has shown to be a positive way to move forward in a world gripped by uncertainty.

Amid global uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic that has disrupted lives and businesses all over the world, Thailand and Cambodia have stepped up efforts to further strengthen the bilateral ties that prove beneficial to both nations.

In a bid to support the Cambodian government’s endeavours to continue fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the Thai government has led the way by deploying significant resources and donating financial aid as the countries celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations.

To further bolster bilateral relationship and trade ties, Thai companies and their partners that have established businesses in different sectors throughout Cambodia have responded positively to calls by both governments to assist in dealing with the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Safeguarding border trade

The impact brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic posed an unprecedented challenge for all communities along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Travel restrictions imposed during the initial outbreak of Covid-19 made it difficult for people to work and businesses to operate between borders.

Cross-border trade has made up the majority of bilateral trade between Thailand and Cambodia, with around 80 per cent of total trade value.

Despite the difficulties experienced, cross-border trade between the two countries has not fallen, but actually continued to rise, reaching $2.73 billion during the first five months of this year – an increase of 2.27 per cent on the previous year.

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HE Pan Sorasak (centre) and Ambassador Panyarak Poolthup (right) attend Thailand’s National Day reception last year.

It is a remarkable achievement, as emphasised by HE Oum Reatrey, Banteay Meanchey provincial governor.

“The importance of cross-border trade between our two nations cannot be underestimated as it makes a significant contribution to our national economic growth. Although the movement of people and vehicles has been restricted with the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is still business as usual for import and export activities between borders.

“An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Cambodians crossed our border into Thailand through Poipet daily before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic for various activities – working in factories, selling farm produce, trading goods, health checks and tourism,” Reatrey said.

To ease stresses resulting from the restrictions on the movement of people, authorities from Banteay Meanchey and Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province have worked together to allow border crossings for Cambodian traders through the Klong Luek-Poipet international checkpoint since July 15 to pick up belongings left at the popular Rong Kluea Market in Thailand as well as for the transportation of goods.

However, crossings are limited to no more than 50 vehicles per day, and restricted to two persons per vehicle for just a few hours.

Health screenings are also being conducted by the relevant authorities and quarantine officials on both sides.

By restricting movement rather than interrupting the flow of goods, government officials have lessened the impact of the border shutdown, helped communities along the border navigate through tough times, and maintained the confidence of Cambodian consumers, including in border towns such as Poipet to continue enjoying quality Thai products without disruption to supply.

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Mobile clinic services organised by SCG Cambodia improve the health of local communities.

“Having Thai businesses in Banteay Meanchey province, especially Poipet city, has contributed to the availability of quality goods and services to consumers while at the same time ensuring sustainable employment for Cambodians,” Reatrey said when asked about the presence of Thai retail store Big C in the border town.

Looking beyond Covid-19, the Thai and Cambodian governments are now increasing their efforts to build back better and stronger bilateral border trade.

Futher international checkpoints are under discussion or in the process of being built, such as the crossing between Sa Kaeo province’s Nong Ian and Stung Bot, which is roughly 15 minutes from Poipet.

This has been envisioned to further promote border trade flows and ease the traffic of goods at the Klong Luek-Poipet international checkpoint.

Overcoming challenges

Many livelihoods have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, with incomes being greatly reduced and jobs lost.

The overall trade value between Thailand and Cambodia will also be affected when this year comes to an end.

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Jirawuth Suwanna-Arj, director of Thai Trade Centre, Phnom Penh, expressed confidence that the challenges presented by the Covid-19 outbreak can be overcome.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has had considerable impact on all economies globally. In Cambodia, people working in sectors such as garment manufacturing, construction and tourism have been hit the hardest.

“As a result, many businesses in these sectors have had to shut down or rely on the government’s economic relief measures, leaving people struggling with lower disposable incomes and purchasing power.

“Although the restrictions of movement in place between our two nations have made it difficult for people to travel for work and business, both governments are trying hard to assist and facilitate the private sector during the Covid-19 pandemic. This bilateral initiative is expected to stimulate business interest and create a trickle-down effect by providing those who serve and work in different sectors of the economy with much needed assistance.

“On our side, different activities have been organised to keep Thai manufacturers and their Cambodian partners connected to business opportunities for consumer products. These include the ‘Thaifex Anuga Asia 2020’ event from August 22-27 and the ‘International Sport Economy’ on September 4, as well as the ‘Thai GROOVE Global Business Matching’ from September 15-17.

“In addition, the Thai government through the Thai Trade Centre in Phnom Penh organised in conjunction with Makro Cambodia a ‘Thai Food and Beverage Festival’ at Makro Sen Sok between August 29 and September 6, while an exhibition themed ‘Mini Thailand Week 2020’ was held at the Palm Container Night Market in Siem Reap from September 3-6,” Jirawuth said.

“By organising these events, Thai companies were able to assist their Cambodian partners in staying afloat despite the business challenges, while helping Cambodian consumers cope with the financial difficulties of rising living costs by making their favourite Thai food and high-quality household products available at affordable and reasonable prices,” said Jirawuth.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has presently created an atmosphere of uncertainty, Jirawuth believes that the Thai business presence in Cambodia will continue to grow with increased future investments and more jobs for Cambodians.

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The Thai Food and Beverage Festival at Makro Sen Sok attracted consumers with high-quality products at affordable prices.

This confidence stems from the unique, extraordinary and warm bilateral ties both countries have shared for seven decades and the long-term vision that major Thai companies have pursued since being established in Cambodia.

This is an inclusive vision that not only focuses on profit and growth, but also one that cares for people and supports the communities where a business operates.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Thai businesses in Cambodia have been quick to adopt social distancing measures and introduce risk-mitigating technologies that have allowed staff and business partners to work from home through digital and virtual connectivity approaches.

This not only ensures business continuity, but also protects those supporting their business ecosystem from the risk of infection, additionally helping the Cambodian government’s efforts to stem Covid-19 local transmission.

Despite declining economic fortunes, there have been no job layoffs reported as Thai businesses in Cambodia strive towards upholding their social responsibility values.

Improving lives then and now

As a growing market filled with opportunities, the Cambodian market has and continues to attract investors from near and far, including neighbouring Thailand.

Thai businesses have a presence in various sectors, ranging from energy, construction, agriculture and livestock, retail, health, hospitality, banking and more.

Today, many have become recognisable household names dedicated to serving Cambodian consumers and improving lives. As well as having sustainability at the core of their mindset, Thai businesses have also taken the welfare of local communities to heart with the commitment to overcome all challenges and adversity together with Cambodians through thick and thin.

In 1995, the PTT Representative Office was opened in Cambodia. Within five years, Thailand’s renowned oil and gas conglomerate emerged as one of the leading petroleum and lifestyle brands nationwide.

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PTT's integrated petrol stations for one-stop convenience offer job opportunities to Cambodians.

Today, with a lively network of 97 PTT petrol stations supported by 56 Jiffy and 156 Café Amazon retail stores spread throughout the country, motorists and travellers can conveniently take a good rest and prepare for the next phase of their trip.

As well as being a one-stop station to refuel the car, refresh the body and restart the journey, PTT also offers Cambodians job opportunities that improve the quality of their lives and contribute to the Cambodian government’s efforts in poverty reduction.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading Thai business conglomerates in Cambodia have had to transform their business operations.

From reforming work processes and ensuring safety at the workplace in order to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections, the common goal among these conglomerates is to ensure the wellbeing of their employees in times of uncertainty, mitigate impacts and maintain the course towards becoming sustainable businesses.

Ratchayut Kasemchaisiri, country director of the Siam Cement Group (SCG) Cambodia – a Thai conglomerate that has contributed to the rapid growth of the construction sector in Cambodia since 1992 – said: “At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, we did our best to ensure that everyone in our business in Cambodia remained safe and free from the risk of infection.

“We had to change the way we conducted our business, from a work-in-the-office to a work-from-everywhere mode, with digital communication being employed.

“Alongside changing the way we operate, our goal was also to continue producing quality products with a focus on ‘Green Society’ and ‘Circular Economy’ where we use environmentally friendly materials and reduce waste in a bid to support sustainable development.

“Consequently, automation and digitisation have been embedded into our work processes to ensure smooth operations as well as effective administration.

In addition, local employees were reskilled and upskilled to handle the newly adjusted environment, which in turn will be useful for them in their careers.

Ratchayut added that social responsibility was key: “As a socially responsible conglomerate, we took to the task of supporting communities.”

With or without the presence of the Covid-19 pandemic, SCG Cambodia will continue to provide mobile clinic services to improve the health of Cambodians.

“Scholarships are also granted each year under the ‘Sharing the Dream’ programme to empower Cambodian students and encourage them to pursue their dreams.

“These programmes are offered with the idea of helping Cambodians improve the quality of their health and their lives,” he said.

These initiatives were introduced by SCG Cambodia in support of the Cambodian government’s call to develop the country as well as to mobilise the power of youth for nation-building.

‘Kitchen of the World’

For CP Cambodia, another renowned Thai conglomerate, decades of observing and implementing biosecurity standards have contributed immensely in its preparations in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Biosecurity personnel from CP Cambodia provide farmers with extensive training to prevent the spread of disease.

Dr Poohrich Sinwat, department manager of strategic development and marketing for CP Cambodia, said: “Based on our extensive knowledge and experience in implementing biosecurity processes, we have applied some procedures to our organisation’s Covid-19 prevention measures. These include establishing disinfectant spray rooms, quarantine areas for visitors and security screenings with various technological support.

“This is not the first time CP Cambodia has had to deal with the outbreak of disease. Through past experiences in dealing with African swine fever in pigs, CP Cambodia has proven that by empowering farmers with proper education and training on placing priority on biosecurity management in areas of hygiene and vaccination, the spread of infection can be successfully prevented.

“After all, farmers play an important role as key partners of CP Cambodia.

“This is integral to the company’s vision of being the ‘Kitchen of the World’, in which the raw materials, ingredients and meats used in finished products have to be safe and of the highest quality,” he added.

It is in line with the present priority of the Cambodian government to promote agriculture in order to diversify the nation’s economic base.

“We see a strong connection between farms, producers and consumers in Cambodia. From the consumer point of view, they want quality products and services available in a better environment that is easily accessible through wide retail channels, especially in rural areas where there is lack of shopping malls and hypermarkets.

“With a network of 7-Eleven convenience stores expected to commence operations in 2021, we believe we have a distribution partner that is able to reach all our customers nationwide,” Poohrich said.

At the same time, the presence of this much talked about chain of convenience stores will provide job opportunities for Cambodians as it expands to various locations across the country, lifting people’s lives and supporting income distribution.

Thai-Cambodian efforts in cementing ties at all levels from the government to the private sector will continue unabated and may even have to be intensified both horizontally and vertically in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As in the commemorative logo for the 70 years of Thai-Cambodian diplomatic relations shows, growth and prosperity can be achieved for both nations from working together like two apsara dancers traditionally dressed in Thai and Cambodian costumes emerging from the national flower of each country – the Ratchapruek and the Rumdoul.

Jointly, Thailand and Cambodia can make a difference in overcoming present socio-economic challenges come what may – and even thrive amid turmoil and uncertainty.

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