Preah Vihear Phra Viharn

If I was the temple I would probably hang my head in shame and wish I was undiscovered rather than witness current squabbles over a few tourist dollars.

Back in 2000, when MOU on border demarcation was signed, things looked very promising. Temple was firmly on a tourist map, there was an agreement between two countries that no visa was required to visit it, business was booming, albeit on the Thai side where most of the tourists were coming from.

World Heritage listing should have made the future even brighter but no, Cambodians got too greedy, they wanted the temple all to themselves so they developed a new theory according to which the only correct way to pay homage to the ancient site is to climb up the cliff and people coming the easy way, via nice, paved roads on the Thai side are infidels. Even the grand staircase was declared as a perversion of the original design.

However ridiculous, Cambodians got French academic help on the issue and, armed with this new code of worshiping the ancestors, they decided to cut off any “heritage” left on the Thai side of the border.

The listing process got stalled, Thais loudly protested and walked off the meetings, then Noppadon came to the rescue, fired Thai chief negotiator and made a deal with Cambodians where they got all they wanted in exchange for his support. PAD got the wind of the secret deal and the rest is history, as they say.

Untangling this knot now is an impossible task.

On one hand it’s great that the government opened public discussions so that all sides know what is going on, on the other hand if there was any chance of quiet diplomacy and making deals acceptable to both Cambodia and Thailand, it is virtually nil now.

On one hand it’s nice that the public is involved, on the other hand it also means that there are a lot of unnecessary flames flying around and intelligence and knowledge are replaced by screaming and posturing.

It’s somewhat easier on the Cambodian side since Thailand need to deal only with Hun Sen but on Thai side there are several political groups that can exploit the issue and national interest be damned.

So far we have only PAD. Ok, two PADs – one, hardline group of protesters, lead by Veera Somkwamkid, a well known nationalist, the other, moderate group is representing PAD in general.

Abhisit was quick to frame the debate so that the conclusion would be “our view of the national interest is the same, we just have disagreements on how to achieve it”. He sidelined Veera’s group and set a new standard of public, televised debates over contentious issues.

Whether it was to neutralize PAD opposition or genuinely advance the issue remains to be seen, looks like two birds with one stone so far.

Still, there are too many angles to the problem to address them on TV.

Two years ago it looked like a business disagreement over tourist revenue. Now it’s much much more than that and the potential gains or losses are not worth fighting over anymore.

I don’t know what Cambodians were thinking. It’s no Angkor Wat, relatively few tourists would consider it worth taking a two day trip over jungle roads. Access on Thai side is a lot easier but then again, it’s a day trip only, if you want to stay overnight you can take pictures of the sunrise or sunset but that’s basically it.

It’s not a gateway to Cambodia the way Poipet is. It could have been but not if Cambodians decided to go alone. Thailand even build them the road from Poipet to Angkor Wat but they behave like ingrates and they can forget any help in developing Cambodian side of Phra Viharn if they don’t change their stance, and if they say they don’t need it – they still need tourists coming in from Thailand, they will never have enough of their own.

My point is the tourism potential of the site is rather limited and Thailand could have just let it go but now the bigger border issues stole the light and they are unresolvable.

Cambodians assert that World Heritage listing doesn’t affect border demarcation but the situation is different on the ground where they have been moving settlers into the disputed territory ever since MOU signing, they have even built an access road there. PAD claims that their site management map takes some 50 rai of Thai territory. I don’t know if it’s true but Cambodians really treat the adjacent land as its own already.

Right now Thai nationalists demand removal of the settlers, by force, if necessary, temple itself doesn’t concern them very much.

And it doesn’t stop there – Cambodians have sights on several other temple ruins on the disputed territories, and so do Thais. Going hardline over this and not conceding an inch of Thai soil is implausible, deals need to be made here and there to keep overall peace but Thai government’s hands are constrained by public reactions at home.

Then there’s maritime borders and oil exploration zones, that’s where the real money is, and they can’t move along either unless two countries cooperate.

Too many things depend on Phra Viharn now – border in the temple vicinity, border issues elsewhere, and shared oil drilling in the Gulf.

There’s no way it can be resolved if it comes in this bundle.

The best outcome would be if Abhisit manages to separate the temple listing from all those other demands and gets Cambodian support for joint management, with revenue sharing acceptable to both sides.

Maybe it should be designated as a special no visa, no national tax zone, managed by an entity with representatives of both countries collecting it’s own taxes and splitting the profits 50/50. I mean if a tourist spends 3,000 baht in a hotel on the Thai side, part of this money goes to Cambodia, too. There could be plans for casinos and may even an airport and appeals to international investors to make worthwhile.

When I think how it could be set up it looks like a huge headache but I believe it’s the only fair way to develop Pra Viharn.

Alternatively Thailand can just sit it out – it’s not losing much from not developing it, Cambodians need it a lot more. They will come around, eventually, when they realize that Thais can stall their plans indefinitely.

And that’s where Thai nationalists come in handy – the government can always site their demands as a reason to keep military presence that scares away the tourists. Border skirmishes at regular intervals is all Thailand needs to make its point.

It’s not kosher but it’s politics – agree on joint management and all problems will go away.

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Let’s not forget Cambodia

Check out this claim by a Cambodian general, proudly announcing that they’ve killed 88 Thai soldiers last year while suffering only two casualties themselves.

And here is the pic:

We killed 88 of them Thais!

The article itself says: “News reports have cited just seven soldiers in total from both sides killed since hostilities first began in 2008,” which is about right.

That comes just a day after Hun Sen’s visit to Thailand for some Mekong conference was a breaking news on both Bangkok Post and The Nation. Last week Hun Sen told his people to stay away from red rallies, and that came just days after Thai media speculated that Thaksin was hiding in Cambodia, on the basis of a doorknob in one of his video links which looked like doorknobs at Phnom Penh Intercontinental.

Later Thaksin was spotted in Montenegro, of course, leaving Hun Sen off the hook. At one of the phone-ins Thaksin told red protesters he needs to go to bed because next morning this little “prai” had to wake up early to oversee the renovation of a hotel he bought there. Busy busy busy.

Anyway, it was all going rather nicely with Hun Sen, and his visit will probably be unremarkable, but that general’s claim was uncalled for and might sparkle another round of cross border chest thumping.

Hun Sen rages on

“ASEAN chief ‘not suitable’ for office” – Phnom Penh Post headline.

“I think Surin Pitsuwan is not suitable to be secretary general of ASEAN,” Hun Sen said during a speech before 300 disabled former soldiers in Kampot province. “The secretary general of ASEAN abused the role by interfering in internal affairs.”

Hun Sen threatened to raise the issue at ASEAN meetings scheduled for next month in Vietnam.

It looks like my yesterday’s concern that Asean would become Hun Sen’s new target is coming true. All that is needed is for Asean members to express support for their Secretary General and they’ll become sworn enemies of Cambodia forever.

It looks like it’s only a matter of time before Hun Sen tries his belligerence on the bigger targets than Thailand. Nothing good will come out of it for his country.

Cambodia fires new old missiles

Last week Cambodia held military exercises, testing if their old soviet made rockets were still operational. Apparently they were:

Cambodian rocket launchers

Abhisit said he wasn’t concerned, it wasn’t a provocation or a show of force, there was nothing to worry about.

Then Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary general pitched in. He didn’t actually say anything, just that it might be a cause for concern but he doesn’t have any details.

“We are very concerned with such development,” Surin was quoted as saying while in Bangkok last week. Asked to elaborate on his concerns, Surin said: “I have no details. I have to look into the details first.

Bad move – Cambodian government didn’t waste time and sent him an official letter, teaching him not to create wrong impressions and not to meddle in Cambodian internal affairs.

“I strongly believe that in your capacity as secretary general of ASEAN, you should not make any wrong statement which may bring about a bad image to an ASEAN member country,” Hor Namhong wrote. “Moreover, you should not make any statement which can be considered as an interference in the internal affairs of Cambodia.”

“Normally and in principle, an ASEAN secretary general should exercise some self-restraint while making any comment or statement concerning an ASEAN member country..”

Two points of note – situation in Cambodia is so sensitive that any hint of criticism provokes a strong response, and, in fact, it’s this response, officially sent by their Foreign Ministry, that affects their image the most. Prior to that they had it all covered, starting with holding tests in the central part of the country, away from Thai borders. They should have just stuck to that line and ignore Surin’s concerns as groundless, they even had Thai government backing their stance, it was all going so well, then they ruined it.

Telling off Asean Secretary General is just not done, at least not in public. Surin, on his part, might have underestimated the sensitivity there, too, but what he said is nothing unusual or provocative or out of line. Now it looks like Cambodian response sets new standards in dealing with that country.

Second point of note is this comment:

Carlyle Thayer, a professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said last week that Thursday’s launch was in line with Hun Sen’s aggressive posture towards Thailand over the past few months, which he called “out of step” with diplomatic norms.

“Everyone in ASEAN holds their nose and says, ‘This is a bad odour,’” Thayer said. “I can’t imagine any ASEAN country being sympathetic to him.”

That is the first description of how Asean members view Hun Sen, I don’t know how true it is, it came from an Australian academic, not from diplomatic sources, and Australians have slightly different standards of what is acceptable and what is not than many Asean countries, and “I can’t imagine” phrase makes it a personal opinion, but still, if there’s any truth in that, it indicates that Cambodia is going on a collision course with the rest of the grouping and is about to lose a lot of good will and make itself into a Burma like pariah.

Asean is, of course, not equipped to deal with these challenges and would make an extra effort to placate raging Hun Sen who, in turn, might be very happy to exploit his newly found power to piss people off on the international level.

We might very well see Thai-Cambodian spat escalating into a regional problem, one step away from attracting attention of big boys, China and the US. How far is Hun Sen prepared to go? I wonder if this letter to Surin is really the first step, hopefully not, but who knows.

Cambodia not forgotten

They did it again.

There’s no point in commenting, just a collection of quotes as posted on Song of Khmer Empire blog:

Hor Namhong, Foreign Minster:

Siamese leaders are stupid for always officially relying on only [unreliable siamese] media.

Hun Sen:

Excrement is Thailand is very expensive, because the Thai people gave it as a gift to the prime minister. Even with that, he still does not resign from his position.

If you don’t tell the truth about Siam troops’ invasion in Cambodia on 15 July, let the magic objects break your neck, may you be shot, be hit by a car, may you be shocked by electricity or [may you be shot] by misfired guns.

You are a true power thief, if you don’t believe me, hold an election and you will lose.

I am angry with only a few people, I am not angry with the entire Siam people, and [I am angry] with the dumb newspapers The Nation and Bangkok Post.

What a funny bunch Thailand got for a neighbor.

No comment

This picture alone speaks better than a thousand words about what Thailand is dealing with.

Hun Sen’s icompetency

Spotted this on 2Bangkok, originally from Khmerization. I think it’s worth reposting, even if only for the future reference.

Thaksin appalled by Hun Sen’s economic knowledge (3)

Thailand’s former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who has recently been appointed as economic advisor to Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen is reportedly appalled the latter’s poor economic knowledge and stubbornness. When Thaksin asked Hun Sen what measures he has taken to counter the ongoing world economic and financial crisis, Hun Sen was unable to speak clearly. Hun Sen tried to say there was nothing he could do and he had to only wait for the United States and Europe to “resolve their problems.” When Thaksin asked him about the size of the economic stimulus package the Cambodian government has adopted, Hun Sen just scratched his head. And when Thaksin asked him about the social safety net the Cambodian government has put in place to protect the population, Hun Sen just asked back, “What is this?”

Is he really that ignorant?

The source is not cited, however.

Not long ago Sam Rainsy’s spokesman complained about quality of Thaksin’s advice, apparently even that goes over Saddam Hun Sen’s head.

Comic relief from Cambodian embassy

There is this funny letter in today’s Nation, from charge d’affaires at the Cambodian embassy. Apparently there’s an endless supply of idiots in their diplomatic circles to replace the much missed Madam Ambassador who amused Thai public by putting her foot in her mouth on several occasions. Here it is in its entirety, there isn’t a sentence I’d want to omit from this masterpiece:

I wish to reply to the editorial published in your newspaper, on December 29, 2009, “Hun Sen’s vanity is a danger to the region’s unity”. While this editorial is completely absurd and vulgar, it has shown how your newspaper has become a political propaganda tool of a government in power, with a complete lack of decent politeness, professional journalism, and truth. Undoubtedly, this editorial has greatly contributed to the deterioration of relations and exacerbating the tensions between the two countries.

First, I think if you call a foreign leader highly respected in his country “a halfwit”, then you are more than a halfwit yourself, and imbecile. This is a finger-pointing rule, which fully applies in this case.

Second, to say that “Hun Sen may be riding on Thailand’s back to boost his popularity…” means that you are completely ignorant. Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia, does not need any popularity at all, based either on Thailand’s or The Nation’s popularity, because he is vice-chairman of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which has won a landslide victory in the elections and now has more than two-thirds of the seats in the parliament. He also had been elevated to the dignity of Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo, highly bestowed upon him by His Majesty the King of Cambodia.

Third, Cambodia did not extradite Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister of Thailand, because he was overthrown by a coup d’etat. Cambodia does not expect or want anything in return. It is just a question of justice for a leader who was overwhelmingly elected by the Thai people.

Fourth, with regard to the spirit of good neighbourliness, it is important for neighbouring states to respect each other, especially national integrity and sovereignty. Today, there is no good neighbourliness with Thailand because the Thai Government opposed Cambodia’s inscription of the Preah Vihear Temple on the World Heritage List, despite the fact that the Temple belongs to Cambodia and its location is on Cambodian soil; refused to recognise the name of the Preah Vihear Temple, although the whole world, including the International Court of Justice, had recognised and used it; invaded Cambodia by sending its troops inside Cambodian territory first on July 15, 2008 and subsequently thereafter.

The Nation runs a clarification under the letter, quoting from original editorial on the use of “halfwit”:

Only a halfwit would believe the comments concocted by Pheu Thai MP Jatuporn Promphan.

To be fair, the editorial earlier said about Hun Sen: “He cited an alleged confidential briefing paper from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…” and that document was released by Jatuporn, though later the editorial specifically mentions Jatuporn’s comments and it was Cambodians own assumption that “halfwits” might include Hun Sen, too.

Let’s see again how Ouk Sophoin replied to that, it’s a real gem: “..if you call a foreign leader highly respected in his country “a halfwit”, then you are more than a halfwit yourself, and imbecile.”

Don’t know what to say. More than a halfwit sound better than a halfwit, so it could have been a hidden compliment, but then again, to make sure, Ouk added “and imbecile”.

They obviously don’t have proofreaders for their outgoing correspondence, and it’s probably for the better – the wording and occasional mistakes only add a certain cartoonish charm, as if it was scribbled by Calvin from the comic strip. The letter itself might have Ovaltine stains and a dried boogie stuck to the back side.

Another bombshell:

Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia, does not need any popularity at all..

Did they put the clarification of what they really mean at the end of the sentence (“..based either on Thailand’s or The Nation’s popularity”) intentionally, to create “we are unbelievable” effect?

Then there are other, relatively minor points, like saying that they didn’t extradite Thaksin because he was overthrown in a coup, ignoring that Thaksin spent nearly half a year in Thailand after the coup without any problems. What they should have said is that they don’t recognize the court verdict against him, but they are not the ones to appear reasonable and intelligent, not their style.

Why do they staff their embassy with these obviously unqualified people? Is it because of Saddam Hun Sen’s recruitment policies, or have their genetic pool been depleted under Pol Pot?

There’s this fairly articulate“Son of the Khmer Empire” dude, as chauvinistic as he is, at least he doesn’t make a fool out of himself. He is totally anti Saddam Hun Sen, though, no chance of the govt employing his services, or the ones like him.

Perhaps all intelligent Cambodians stick with Sam Rainsy and so are left excluded from contributing to their country. “Son of the Empire” says so himself here.

Anyway, in just two days I’ve got “politics through shopping” PhD thesis, which I think could be “Snakes on a plane” equivalent among Thai studies, and now this Cambodian contribution. Are they competing or something?