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Cambodia & Thailand - the riots: the saga continues

March 9, 2003
The troubles between Thailand and Cambodia took a turn for the worse this past week when Cambodia barred its nationals from entering Thailand from either the Koh Kong or Poipet border crossings, citing first and foremost concern for its citizens during Thailand's war on drugs campaign that has seen well over 1,000 people shot dead since the program began on February 1. Several Cambodians were among the casualties. I stated from the outset that this closure was ill-advised and would do more harm to Cambodia than it would to Thailand.

First of all, just to clear up a point for any would-be tourists, the borders ARE OPEN to non-Khmers and non-Thais and this squabble presents NO DANGER to any of you. Please do not place additional hardship on the Cambodian people by staying away from Cambodia due to unfounded fears of personal safety or any reports you might hear from a Thai business owner (travel agent, guesthouse) that tells you Cambodia is unsafe, on the brink of war, that the border is closed, that there is no transport, etc. It is not the case. Go to the northern bus terminal in Bangkok and go to Cambodia on your own. It's not difficult.

We could go back hundreds of years to fully sort out these present Thailand - Cambodia problems. And like most disagreements there are at least three sides to this story with the respective Thai and Cambodia sides being at the same time both farthest and closest to the truth. Farthest because their personal involvement clouds their objectivity, but at the same time, closest to the truth because of that old cliché whereby perception is reality, and if a Cambodian or Thai feels such and such a way about the issue, then that's what they think and that's that. And if what they believe would be considered wrong then it's up to everyone else to understand first what this perception is if there is going to be any hope of changing it.

On Thai-Cambodian issues (not just the riots, but in all issues) I've received the ultimate compliment. I've had Khmers accuse me of being pro-Thai, I've had Thais accuse me of being pro-Khmer. I must be doing my job then and I'm proud of that. Living in both countries and being a national of neither does put me in a unique position to observe and discuss these issues. And the fact that I can piss people off on both sides proves how far apart each one of them is.

The Cambodians:

They are the little guys. Coming out of three decades of internal strife and trying to rebuild a shattered country is a formidable task indeed. From a psychological point of view, the recovery of the Cambodian people has been nothing short of amazing and serves as an example to the rest of the world. I find it incredible that Americans were running for therapy just from watching the 9-11 attacks on television! Look what the Cambodians endured under the Khmer Rouge for nearly three years and nine months, which was followed by a ten-year Vietnamese occupation which for many hardly improved the conditions experienced under the Khmer Rouge!

On the other hand, while the psychological recovery has been extraordinary, sorting out the infrastructure, kick starting the educational system, developing a functioning political system, etc, has not been a process worthy of "A" marks, especially when one considers the amount of international aid that has been given to this end. Cambodia tells us it wants to be treated like a normal country. I think that's a fair request. But then it needs to act like one.

Many events of the past twenty years have not been conducive to improving Thai/Cambodia relations. Many Khmers remember the days following the fall of the Khmer Rouge when they, as refugees, endured a walk through hell to reach the Thai border, only to be turned away by the soldiers, many retreating to certain death. It wasn't until international pressure was applied that Thailand began accepting these refugees. This is still rightfully a sore point among many Khmers.

In the early 1990s Cambodia finally opened its doors to the world and a trickle of tourists and a trickle of international investment began. Investment came from a number of nations with Thai nationals being some of the main investors. From a tourist perspective, Thailand has and continues to remain the major gateway to Cambodia and thus holds significant control over how people reach Cambodia. Almost all flights between Thailand and Cambodia are on Thai carriers and the most important route, Bangkok to Siem Reap, remains the exclusive domain of Bangkok Airways, a company which also operates a Phnom Penh to Siem Reap route under the guise of Siem Reap Airways. But while this arrangement benefits Thailand, who allows it? Khmers. Royal Phnom Penh Airways, a Khmer-owned business has on three occasions applied and been denied a slot on the Siem Reap to Bangkok route. Who denies this slot? Khmers. Who benefits from this situation? Thais and whoever on the Khmer-side is part of the present arrangement. Still, Thai-owned airlines, Thai-owned hotels, Thai-owned tour agencies, none of this is lost on the Cambodian people.

Then there is the issue of national sovereignty. Rightly or wrongly, Cambodians are very sensitive to border issues and most Cambodians believe that both Thailand and Vietnam seek to encroach upon their border and take Cambodian territory. Cambodians will be quick to point to the example of Preah Vihear temple. On the border of Thailand and Cambodia it's long been a center of dispute. In 1961 in the International Court of Justice the temple was formally (and I would say correctly) given to Cambodia. Unfortunately for Cambodia, there was no way to access the temple from their side of the mountain until January 2003. From 1998, when the area first became secure, the temple was only accessible from Thailand, which of course, reaped the bulk of the financial benefit from this arrangement. Still, Thailand is going to have to come to terms both with the forty-two-year-old court decision (which they haven't) and with the fact that Cambodia has built its own road to the temple and is in the position to dictate the terms that would allow a resumption of access on the Thai side.

Khmers make note of the flight of their ancient carvings to Thailand as well as the plundering of their natural resources, rightfully angered to see these precious bits of their national heritage for sale in ritzy Bangkok galleries and their trees ending up in Thailand and Vietnam.

Okay, Cambodian logs end up in Thailand, ancient Khmer statuary ends up in Bangkok. But how did it get there? Who allowed the trees to be cut down? A Khmer did. Who cut the heads off the temples? Khmers did. Who drove the trees and the heads to the border? A Khmer did. Who let them leave the country? A Khmer did. But then Thais complain about all their stolen cars winding up in Cambodia. But who stole the car? A Thai. Who drove it to the border? A Thai. Who let the car leave the country? A Thai. Both countries can share the blame on these issues.

Any person, business, or country, that takes on outside investment has a responsibility to see that the investments are protected and effort is made to ensure that these investments remain beneficial to all parties involved. Likewise, the investors also have a right to take steps within reasonable limits to see that their interests are protected. Does this give the Thais the right to run Cambodia? No, it does not. But I don't think the Thais want to run Cambodia. I don't think the Thais want to encroach on Cambodian territory. What I do believe is that the Thais want to make money. And Cambodia is seen as a place to make this money. It's young, it's developing, contrary to popular belief corruption is not that big of an issue (at least for small businesses, I can't speak for the big projects), taxation is reasonable, and the laws and enforcement practices governing business are favorable to foreigners.

Cambodia, then, has to decide whether it wants to allow this investment and to what extent. For the most part Cambodia offers a resounding "Yes", therefore if Cambodia continues to say, "yes, invest in our country, in our people" then Cambodia must protect these investments. Cambodia failed to protect Thai investments on January 29th and in fact, targeted those investments and as all evidence is shown, there was no factual basis in the rumors that fueled these riots.

Thailand has a right then to be angry. If Cambodia feels that foreign investment comes at the expense of national sovereignty then Cambodia has a right to expel these investors and can face the consequences for having done so. It's an unenviable position to be in, I understand this. But in the present day there is still very little Cambodia can produce on its own. One of the main reasons is the lack of an educated workforce and given the importance to the future and well being of Cambodia in having this quality pool of labor I remain critical about the rate of education reform in Cambodia.

The Thais:

The bigger and considerably wealthier neighbor, the Thais do generally see Cambodia and Cambodians as inferior. And Khmers know well how Thais feel about them. This is unfortunate and I have never appreciated the Thai attitudes towards Khmers and have on numerous occasions stood up for the Khmers against the Thais. The riots have made this a more difficult task for the time being.

The Thais do not want to take over Cambodia. The Thais want to make money. What the Thais fail to see is how they are perceived by the Cambodians. If you talk to a Thai about the influence on their country from say, America, Japan, Britain, you will likely be rewarded with a long bit about how Thailand is a little country that must take steps to protect itself from these big monsters that want to take over their country, swallow it up, chew it up, spit it up, whatever. What the Thais fail to comprehend is that how they feel about a country like the United States is not that different from how Cambodians feel about Thailand.

The latest salvo in the Thai-Cambodia dispute is the shutting down of the borders to Cambodians. I don't accept the excuse that this is to save Cambodian lives during Thailand's war on drugs. There's no reason why Cambodia can't simply warn its citizens of the dangers they believe exist in Thailand and leave it up to their own citizenry to decide for themselves whether or not they will assume the risks and visit Thailand. Most developed nations operate this way, and I for one, have in my passport a just-issued tourist visa to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Never mind my government tells me not to go there, the decision is ultimately mine as to whether I go or not.

The loss of revenue to the Poipet casinos has been cited as another sore point with the Cambodians, estimated at nearly $7 to 10 million US a week. Problem is, there isn't $7 to 10 million going the other way, so what does Thailand lose? And of the nearly one million dollars coming into the Poipet casinos each day I'd also be curious to know just how much of that money ever reaches the average Cambodian. Also consider that the casinos are partially owned by Thai military generals. And the scarcities in goods that this border closure creates will do more harm than good to the average Cambodian who will be forced into paying higher prices for household necessities. The contents of any market selling such goods will be predominantly Thai with a handful of Malaysian, Chinese, and Vietnamese products.

Thailand's response is twofold. First, Thailand says they will not be pressured into caving to any Cambodian demand. They are more than willing to ride this out forever. As the wealthier stronger nation, this a battle they can easily win. Cambodia needs to realize this. Thailand's other response is more immediate. Give us the money. Thailand wants payment for damages. Not promises, but cash. "Give us the money," they say, "and we'll start normalizing relations." If I were in Thailand's position I doubt I'd act much differently. I think it's a reasonable request.

While there's no denying that the origins of this conflict can be traced back for centuries, the immediate issue is the riots and Thailand is correct to say that they did nothing to provoke the attacks on their embassy and their nationals' businesses. The riots were political wrangling created from false rumors reported as fact in the Khmer press and further compounded by several noteworthy politicians.

It would also do Thais well to understand the relative lack of education of the Cambodian people. 85% of Cambodians do not even have access to education beyond the primary level. The result is a populace easily swayed by sensationalist news reports and chest-thumping politicians. About ten days after the riots, a friend of mine, a Brit, who runs a Siem Reap guesthouse was at the boat docks. As usual the place was crawling with motodrivers. My friend, who speaks a bit of Khmer, thought for a laugh to spew a little trash about Thailand and see what kind of reaction he got. In very short order he had whipped every motodriver within earshot into a frenzy. With a chuckle he walked off knowing he was but one sentence away from instigating another riot. It's that easy. And he's not even Khmer. There are still Khmers who believe the Thai actress falsely accused of making anti-Cambodia statements really made these statements, likewise, the false story of the Cambodia embassy in Bangkok being destroyed and a number of Khmer lives lost was not easy to prove wrong once the average Cambodian got hold of that information. Also understand that while Cambodian educational standards are low, the local press is not much better.

And politically, Cambodia is a new country. In their defense, in the ten years of democracy Cambodia is not that far behind Thailand's seventy-year democratic tradition, which isn't all that democratic and as it's been interspersed with military dictatorships it's hardly a tradition. However, Thailand has a much larger educated elite that can to some extent, at least more so than Cambodia, stand as reason should something like what happened in Phnom Penh be attempted in Bangkok. Cambodia lacks that internal safeguard.

As I said at the outset, over time I've been accused by Thais of being pro-Khmer and by Khmers of being pro-Thai. If my take on the riots favors Thailand over Cambodia, it's not that I have preference for one over the other, it's that in this particular situation Cambodia was wrong. Cambodia was wrong to riot. Thailand is right to be angry. Thailand is right to demand payment for damages and Cambodia is wrong to assume they can see the relationship improve in the absence of this payment. And I do believe the unfortunate reality is that Cambodia is going to suffer more from a border closure than Thailand will.

Is this fair? No, it's not fair but sometimes life is not fair and the riots and the ensuing fallout is grossly unfair. And the people suffering the most are the everyday Cambodians. As individuals they may or may not have anti-Thai feelings but the fact remains that the riots were a political orchestration gone wrong, the people who are supposed to serve their people sold them out instead. Also consider that the number of people who actually took part in the riots was .01 percent of the population. That means 99.99% of Cambodians did nothing to warrant the resulting hardships that have been created from this.

I spoke with many Khmers in the weeks following the riots. In general there was anti-Thai sentiment, largely because they've been told to be anti-Thai. In many cases if I pressed someone for solid reasons why they were anti-Thai, solid answers weren't forthcoming, many really weren't sure why they were anti-Thai, it just seemed like the thing to be right now. But perception is reality, sentiment is reality. The sentiment in Cambodia is decidedly anti-Thai. But while many Khmers' anti-Thai feelings are at their strongest they also are lamenting the loss in revenue that is affecting their businesses. Hotel owners, restaurant owners, tour guides, everyone is hurting a little (see my March Update for my commentary on the effects to the tourism industry in Cambodia). Does anyone else see the contradiction here?

Yes, I depend on a stable functioning Cambodia for my income and I speak out when I see things that stand in my way. But bear in mind, if I'm suffering income loss, then Khmers are suffering losses as well and many will be suffering to greater degrees than I. As a foreigner I'm more adaptable and have more options. But when I'm making money, then so too, are the Khmers. We are an inexorable partnership.

And if any Khmers still think I'm unfairly pro-Thai, then please reread the third paragraph from the top and analyze your own position. Alternatively, tell me your side of the story. I'll print it.

I am not anti-Khmer. I am anti-stupidity.



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