No Love Lost: Thailand and Cambodia

Thailand and Cambodia share the same religion and similar cultures, yet there has long been a tension between the two countries. So where does this animosity spring from?

Cambodians have long memories. They recall that Cambodia was once a mighty empire, sprawling from what is now north eastern Thailand through to southern Vietnam. Some of Thailand’s most striking temples, such as Prasat Hin Phimai, Meuang Singh, and Phanom Rung and Prasat Meuang Tam were built when the area was ruled by Cambodia. Khao Phra Wihaan sits on the modern Thai/Cambodian border and though granted to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice, many Thais are deeply resentful of this, and consider it rightly theirs. Troops are encamped on both sides of the border, and occasionally take pot-shots at each other. Sovereignty over some land in the area is still disputed.

Towards the end of the 18th century Siam (as Thailand was then called) under King Rama I, invaded Cambodia and seized Battambang and Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat and historical capital of the Khmer empire). At about the same time the Vietnamese took the Mekong delta in what is now southern Vietnam. The French decided to “protect” Cambodia, preventing further loss of territory, and in the early 19th century the French were able to negotiate the return of Battambang and Siem Reap to Cambodia.

When World War II broke out, Thailand sided with Japan and invaded Cambodia (again), seizing both Battambang and Siem Reap (again), though not the area around Angkor Wat, which remained under the French.

At the end of the war Thailand was required to return the land it had seized to Cambodia. As soon as Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1953, Thailand reoccupied the land around Khao Phra Wihaan (which is almost inaccessible from the Cambodian side, anyway).

At the same time Thailand’s Prime Minister/Dictator, Marshal Sarit Thanarat, did much to destabilise the regime of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The American CIA was also involved in the plot since it feared that Cambodia would fall under Chinese communist influence. In response, in 1961 Cambodia severed diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In 1962 Cambodia appealed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, who ruled that Khao Phra Wihaan belonged to Cambodia, not Thailand. The Thai army was keen to go to war to maintain sovereignty over the land, but His Majesty The King intervened and told them to respect the court’s decision.

The Thai army never forgot the humiliation, and covertly supported various opposition groups in Cambodia until Prince Sihanouk’s regime was ousted in 1970.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Thai communists set up bases in Cambodia and launched raids jointly with the Khmer Rouge into Thailand. The Chinese government eventually intervened to put a halt to these raids.

In 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia to put a halt to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. (Some say 2 million Cambodians died under Pol Pot’s regime, others 3 million – we’ll never know.) The leadership of the Khmer Rouge fled to Thailand en masse. Hun Sen was installed by Vietnam as the Prime Minister. He faced a difficult task, opposed by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, supporters of the Royal family and others. A long civil war ensued, with plenty of aid coming from Thailand for the oppositions. Eventually the United Nations intervened and a general election was held. It was won by the royalists, but an uneasy coalition was formed with Hun Sen’s party. Hun Sen subsequently seized full power in a coup in 1997.

In 2003 there were anti-Thai riots in Cambodia, sparked by a Thai actress’ alleged assertion that Khao Phra Wihaan should belong to Thailand. This was widely reported in the Cambodian press. The Thai embassy was set on fire, and Thai business premises were attacked and destroyed (including those of Thaksin’s Shincorp). (It’s speculated that this is when Thaksin and Hun Sen first met and became friendly.)

Last year Hun Sen provocatively appointed the fugitive criminal Thaksin as “economic advisor” – a move clearly calculated to offend the Thai government and people.

More recently, Hun Sen launched a foul-mouthed tirade against the current Thai Prime Minister on a website.

And now, a massive build up of Cambodian troops along the border.

So there you have it: animosity rooted in centuries of distrust.

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