Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha will pay an official visit to Cambodia today for a two-day trip to strengthen bilateral ties. He is scheduled to meet with his counterpart, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, and to have an audience with King Sihamoni, who, on 14 October, celebrated his 10th anniversary of enthronement. Prayuth’s visit is highly significant in many ways, both for his own domestic purposes and for Thailand’s fragile relations with Cambodia.
Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the ASEM Summit in Milan.
There were signs of rapprochement in relations between Thailand and Cambodia. On May 31, just over a week after the Thai coup, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Tea Banh visited Bangkok and expressed his confidence in the leadership of the Thai military in bringing peace and order to Thailand. In July, Hun Manet, the premier’s son and possible successor of Hun Sen, visited Bangkok to cement ties with Thailand.
The visits to Thailand by top Cambodian delegates were politically meaningful. they could be used to repair the declining popularity of Hun Sen at home by appearing to push for an improvement in bilateral relations. This follows years of conflicts in the territorial dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple and the allegations of Hun Sen supporting former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and offering shelter to anti-coup Red Shirts.
Cambodia is the second ASEAN country selected by Prayuth for his introductory tour as the new prime minister of Thailand. Earlier this month, he visited Myanmar, hoping to exploit the latter’s political transformation to legitimise his own political reforms at home. Little did Prayuth know that Myanmar has recently been criticised by the international community for the stagnation of its political developments. Thus, to a certain extent, the visit to Myanmar was counterproductive for the Thai junta in the eyes of the world.
This time, in Phnom Penh, Prayuth continues to seek an acceptance of his regime by an ASEAN neighbor. In rolling a red carpet to welcome Prayuth, Cambodia is implying that the Thai junta is one it can live with. Officially, Prayuth’s meeting with Hun Sen will render a number of mutual benefits to both countries. The Phnom Penh Post reported that they will conclude memorandums of understanding signed on tourism, human trafficking and a railway connection linking Sa Kaew province in Thailand to Poipet and onto Phnom Penh.
It also reported that a long-awaited agreement on a joint development area in the Gulf of Thailand, which would allow mutual exploration of possible oil and gas deposits, could be in the offing. But the deal remains complicated by decades-old overlapping claims. It is uncertain if Prayuth will raise an issue of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. In the aftermath of the coup, rumours proliferated that Thailand was planning to expel them, causing an exodus of Cambodian workers back to their country across the Thai border.
Indeed, a few bilateral issues have been left untouched, depending on the state of relations between the two countries. Since 2008, the conflict over the Hindu Temple of Preah Vihear had been used as a political weapon to undermine political opponents in Thailand. The politicisation of the Preah Vihear conflict in Thailand had led to several armed clashed with Cambodia. In 2011, Thailand and Cambodia engaged in one of the most brutal clashes in their recent history, posing a threat to regional stability and humiliating ASEAN of which both are members. Prayuth will likely be leaving such contentious issue behind.
But a more important question will be asked: whether Prayuth will seek assistance from Hun Sen in regards to the Thai dissidents living in Cambodia? In the heyday of Thaksin as prime minister from 2001-2006, he personally constructed intimate relations with Hun Sen. When Yingluck became prime minister in 2011, this personal relationship continued to the point that Cambodia was willing to accommodate Red Shirts and their activities inside its own territory.
Undoubtedly, there are a number of Thai refugees seeking shelter inside Cambodia today. So far, Thailand sent some signals from top elites to influence Cambodia not to embrace Thai dissidents with arms wide open. General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, met with Hun Sen on 1 September and urged the Cambodian premier to ensure peace and stability between the two countries.
From the Cambodian perspective, it is obvious that Cambodia is playing with rhetoric of a good neighbourhood. Phnom Penh has never admitted that it provides shelter for Thai fugitives and meanwhile promised that it would not allow that to happen. But the reality is different. It makes sense for Cambodia to implement pragmatic policy toward Thailand: one which cherishes good ties with the Thai junta, and the other which seeks to elevate its leverage by treating Thai dissidents as a bargaining chip.
At the end, Hun Sen has perceived the Shinawatras as his country’s long-term interests. Hun Sen himself has recognized the power of electoral politics simply as a platform to maintain his political legitimacy. Thaksin and Yingluck are using the same strategy, thus having won every election since 2001. From this view, although not a model of democracy himself, Hun Sen understands that popular mandate is key to the success of the Shinawatras. Sooner or later, they will return to Thai political domain.
Thaksin’s tactic is also intriguing. He appears to have kept his distance from Hun Sen, to allow Cambodia to rebuild its ties with the Thai junta to avoid any awkward diplomacy. Prayuth’s coming to Cambodia today may lighten up his military regime, but it is a part of Cambodia’s pragmatic policy. There are no other periods in the Cambodian history which witnesses Cambodia, as a smaller nation than Thailand, actively intervening in Thai politics than today.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.