Coup reorients relations with Cambodia

Coup reorients relations with Cambodia

Thailand’s military coup has reoriented Thai-Cambodian relations with surprising effects. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s overt enmity and confrontation towards Thailand over the past several years have become conciliatory and accommodating for the time being. Whether this new pattern of bilateral ties is solidified depends on how post-coup Thailand plays out.

Veera Somkhwamkid, former coordinator of the Thai Patriots Network, arrives in Thailand after spending over three years in a Cambodian prison. The unexpected release showed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s more conciliatory stance towards Thailand. PATTARACHAI PREECHAPANICH

If the Thai divide can be bridged and reconciliation efforts become successful, Thai-Cambodian relations may enter a new phase of cooperation and accommodation. If divisions in Thailand are renewed and intensified after the initial coup period, then bilateral ties may again be characterised by tension and conflict as in the recent past.

As Thailand’s new authorities under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) made it clear from the outset that they mean business, the Cambodian prime minister has gone out of his way not to antagonise the Thai military.

Hun Sen’s new posture is counter-intuitive because this is the same Thai high command that oversaw military skirmishes with the Cambodian army in early 2011 in the vicinity of Preah Vihear temple, a longstanding territorial dispute between the two countries. The clash claimed more than 20 lives on both sides, and at the time was Asean’s only significant military showdown between member states in many years.

The NCPO is from the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-establishment side but perhaps from a different column than the Democrat Party and its associated yellow and multi-coloured shirts, many of whom were behind the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which demonstrated in the streets for more than six months until the coup transpired.

In recent years, when Thai governments were related to former prime minister Thaksin, Thai-Cambodian relations were generally smooth and warm. But when the anti-Thaksin side takes power, as in 2008-11 under the Democrat Party-led government of former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, relations between the two neighbours soured. Hun Sen at one point even appointed Thaksin an economic adviser to the Cambodian government and arranged for a corresponding public lecture in the face of anti-Thaksin protests in Bangkok.

It would have been unsurprising if Hun Sen had stepped up his belligerent rhetoric, bolstered his armed forces, secured Cambodia’s borders, and hunkered down in preparation for self-defence as Thailand’s military commanders seized power. But Hun Sen treaded softly instead, breaking from his previous pattern of behaviour. It appears he knew that this time his opponents in the NCPO were the real deal. Retribution against him for having sided with Thaksin, and thereby intervened in Thailand’s internal affairs, was not unimaginable. Incurring the wrath of the Thai army when Thai generals hold absolute power in view of a bad history with the Hun Sen regime was simply inadvisable.

A war veteran and one of the world’s longest-lasting rulers, Hun Sen is smart, with certifiable survival instincts. For example, he publicly rejected a potential Thai government-in-exile on Cambodian soil early after the coup, despite having provided a refuge for a host of pro-Thaksin red-shirt leaders over recent years. When the anti-coup Seri Thai movement was announced on June 24, its preparations and final declaration took place in Hong Kong, not using Cambodia as the main staging ground. Apart from putting some distance between himself and pro-Thaksin dissidents, Hun Sen also has not openly criticised the coup in Thailand or the post-coup proceedings.

When he did speak up during the sudden and mass exodus of more than 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers, it was measured and devoid of his usual aggressive rhetoric. Hun Sen apparently depends on jobs in Thailand more than Thailand depends on migrant workers from Cambodia. After initial confusion and controversy, migrant workers have trickled back and a new normal of more stringent procedures in the migrant labour industry is setting in.

To further sweeten the new deal in Thai-Cambodian relations, Hun Sen arranged for the release of Veera Somkhwamkid, an anti-Thaksin activist who had been languishing in a Cambodian jail after being caught demonstrating on its soil in 2011. Just a little over a month after the coup, Veera’s homeward return was a vivid sign of Cambodian goodwill under Hun Sen. It is difficult now for the NCPO to have issues with Cambodia after Hun Sen’s concessions.

These manoeuvres are partly attributable to Hun Sen’s loosening grip of electoral authoritarianism at home. Cambodia’s election in July 2013 still hangs over him. His Cambodian People’s Party prevailed but the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party more than doubled its number in the national assembly. As allegations of vote fraud emerged, the opposition party called in vain for a recount and has boycotted the assembly since. That the writing is on the wall for Hun Sen at home constrains him from brash and ill-considered moves in his relations with a much bigger neighbour next door.

But it’s still early days after the Thai coup. Hun Sen’s accommodation and concession are in a wait-and-see mode like many other stakeholders.

If the NCPO makes missteps and domestic political conflict resumes in earnest, Hun Sen may revert to his earlier partisanship and again align with what he thinks will be the winning side in Thailand’s deep-seated and structural polarisation.

Accordingly, Thailand’s reconciliation and reform efforts must succeed to move Thai-Cambodian relations onto a new horizon of peace and partnership.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor of International Political Economy and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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