Deconstructing the Current Cambodian-Thai Diplomatic Dispute: A Cambodian Perspective

Original blog post of November 10, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO – Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have now moved beyond Preah Vihearand become increasingly more complicated. Yet, things may as well be straightforward, or so it seems from this very insightful piece by the Asia Times’ Craig Guthrie:

Hun Sen’s main domestic opponent says the premier’s overtures to Thaksin are not motivated by scoring political points or a desire to uphold Khmer nationalism, but instead are due to pressure being exerted on him by Vietnam, the invading nation which initially installed him as premier in 1985 and which the opposition still claims has influence over the CCP government.

Sam Rainsy has called the argument between Thaksin and Abhisit a “political game” to turn the Cambodian public’s attention to the west, in the direction of Thailand, while ignoring the east, towards Vietnam. Antagonism among Cambodians – over inward migration and alleged land grabbing – is much higher towards Vietnam, which occupied Cambodia between 1979 and 1989, than towards Thailand, which has made less controversial service-sector inroads into the country.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Hun Sen is trying to show that he is the defender of the national interests of Cambodia and that Thailand is the real enemy of Cambodia and not Vietnam,” said United States-based Cambodian economist Naranhkiri Tith.

Although the above analysis may not fully explain the current “political game,” it does compellingly show that the current ‘nationalist double standard’ exercised by the CPP government is partly rooted in the Party’s owning its existence to Vietnam’s support as well as its distrust of Thailand during the 1980s and 1990s Cambodian Cold War politics. Nevertheless, it is likely that the motivations behind the current moves are as much the CCP’s different historic relations with the two neighbors as they are a need to uphold Khmer nationalism in the eyes of an increasingly changing domestic demography.

With the memories and legacy of the Khmer Rouge–the demise of which is a major source of the CCP’s political legitimacy–gradually fading away, particularly amongst young and educated Cambodians, Khmer nationalism is increasingly becoming a substitute tool for political and moral legitimacy. Post-Khmer Rouge-born Cambodians may already make up the majority of the voting population and certainly will in the near future. To this audience, the destruction of the Khmer Rouge means little, if anything, compared to job security, better education, better health care, or particularly post-conflict national pride and nation-(re)building.

Khmer nationalism has traditionally included the centuries-old process of ‘othering’–the creation of group enemies–of the neighboring Thais and Vietnamese to produce a sense and defense of ‘Khmer-ness’. With some exceptions, politicized animosities against the two more powerful neighbors have often been an unbalanced either-or affair; that is, either turning more East (against Vietnam) or West (against Thailand) depending on what Cambodian regime is in power and which foreign patron it is ‘indebted’ to. Such animosity is practically non-existent against neighboring Laos, a country similarly squeezed between the two powerful neighbors. In contemporary Cambodian political context, is seems likely that more problems would arise with Thailand than Vietnam if the CCP rules, while the opposite–more antagonistic policies towards Vietnam and warmer relations with Thailand– would ensue should the current opposition party come to power. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s recent political stunt at the Vietnamese border and the consequences thereof highlight what can be expected of Cambodia’s domestic-cum-neighborly politics in the coming years.

As a matter of nationalist politics, the current ruling CCP has few other choices than to exploit its historical distrust of Thailand. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, it is also trying to counter any perceived double standard in order to be seen as the ‘real guarantor’ of the nation’s independence in the eyes of its people. It comes as no surprise, then, that Cambodia’s information minister recently led a Cambodian delegation to what is known by Khmers as ‘Kampuchea Krom’ or ‘Lower Cambodia’ in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta territory to showcase that the CPP also cares about ethnic Khmers there and can also ‘tackle’ Vietnam, although in a much more amicable way.

What Guthrie describes as “domestic political spat that has spilled over into international relations” and which initially was applied to Thai internal politics in relation to the Preah Vihear dispute and now also suitably applied to Cambodian politics, is potentially very destructive politics that comes at a heavy price for peoples living along the Cambodia-Thailand and Cambodia-Vietnam borders as well as a blow to the ASEAN spirit altogether. Concerned politicians should keep these consequences in mind now that it is their capacity to reconstruct a better politics for their country and the region.

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