Upbeat on Thai-Cambodia Ties

The election of Yingluck Shinawatra could put relations between Thailand and Cambodia back on track.

Upbeat on Thai-Cambodia Ties
Credit: Rikker Dockum

The changes in a country’s foreign policy during the transition to a new regime can sometimes be striking, and al eyes will be on any signs of a shift in Thailand over the coming weeks and months as the new Pheu Thai-led coalition takes power after this month’s election victory. 

The result wasn’t just a repudiation of economic policy by the rural majority but, as noted by one Thai civil servant, a refection of nearly three years of failed foreign policies under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his administration. Thailand’s relationship with global and regional hegemons – the United States, China, and Russia, all fellow members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation – will most likely remain unchanged. However, relations between Thailand and Cambodia is where many observers can expect to see a shift.

Tensions between the two states reached their highest point in years in April, when their militaries clashed on the border over the status of the ancient Hindu temple ruins of Preah Vihear. The fighting resulted in 18 deaths and dozens more wounded. After military commanders agreed to a ceasefire in May, the dispute was referred to the International Court of Justice for adjudication. An injunction on the matter is expected to be delivered by July 18.

The Abhisit administration’s perspective on the conflict in large part reflected the views held by the fiercely nationalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the Yellow Shirts who staged anti-government street demonstrations in 2008. The PAD found the stance taken by the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra government, led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, to be an intolerable insult to Thai pride; Samak supported Cambodia’s push to list the temples as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under Cambodian administration.

A Pheu Thai victory may, in effect, reset the Thai-Cambodian relationship and mollify the hostility that had underpinned it since 2008. As The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt reported last week, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong said of Pheu Thai’s big win: ‘It’s true, we can’t hide that we are happy with the victory by Pheu Thai Party in Bangkok.’

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The lame duck Abhisit administration, which will still be in office when the ICJ makes its ruling on the dispute, has stated that it will comply with any decision the court reaches. That statement is sure to have upset the Yellow Shirts, still licking their wounds from the electoral hammering the government received. But it should be a significant step towards peacefully resolving the differences between the two countries. As articulated by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week, a Pheu Thai government will mark ‘a new era of cooperation.’

Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.