Last week, the head of Thailand’s military paid his first visit to Cambodia since assuming his role last September. The trip once again put the spotlight on the defense relationship between the two militaries, including potential areas for further security collaboration despite longstanding and lingering challenges.
As I have noted before in these pages, security cooperation between Cambodia and Thailand has long been an important part of a rather complex and multilayered bilateral relationship, whether it be on areas of collaboration such as managing cross-border trade or managing longstanding challenges such as transnational crimes or outstanding border disputes. And while routine security meetings on border management have continued to occur, there have also been signs of an intensification of ties in this realm, amid fears about an authoritarian alliance of sort emerging between the ruling junta in Thailand led by Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen as they seek to suppress dissent and consolidate their authority at home (See: “What’s in the Thailand-Cambodia Foreign Fugitive Deal?”).
The spotlight has been on ties in 2018 given the fact that it is an important year for both regimes, with Cambodia having elections in July and Thailand planning polls next year after multiple postponements. These have been deepened further by tough statements Hun Sen and Prayut have made on cracking down on their political opponents at home and abroad which have led to multiple rounds of headlines as well surrounding even regular interactions.
This week, the Cambodia-Thailand military relationship was in the headlines once again as Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTAF) Supreme Commander Thanchaiyan Srisuwa paid a two-day official visit to Cambodia. The visit, which was Thanchaiyan’s first to Cambodia since he took office in September last year, came just weeks before Cambodia’ election amid continued speculation in Thailand about whether a new deadline for long-delayed polls will actually be met and the potential impacts on the country’s political environment.
The official statements by both sides predictably cast the objective of the visit in rather vague terms, referring to strengthening friendship and cooperation between the two militaries, and the focus, among other things, was on addressing a range of non-traditional security threats including human trafficking and drug smuggling. Thanchaiyan received to top Cambodian officials, which included Prime Minister Hun Sen, Defense Minister Tea Banh, and acting Royal Cambodia Armed Forces (RCAF) Commander Pol Saroeun.
Though there were few specifics publicly and officially disclosed by the two sides on the visit, reports emerged that one of the outcomes of the trip was new military cooperation between the two sides. According to The Bangkok Post, Thanchaiyan said Cambodia would send military and police officers to attend VIP protection training and a joint drill on humanitarian relief and disaster rescue in Thailand for the first time since both sides had clashed over the Preah Vihear temple.
On the two interactions, Thanchaiyan reportedly said that the VIP protection course would see 25 police and military officers from Cambodia attend the VIP protection course at the Armed Forces Security Center attached to the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters, which includes driving for VIP figures and shooting to provide for their safety; while the HADR training drills would be conducted at the Armed Forces Development Command’s unit in Chachoengsao province and could help personnel manage disasters that could emerge in border areas.
For all the headlines that have followed this announcement, it is worth noting that few additional details were provided on the two aforementioned military interactions, including when exactly they would be held. That is a particularly important question considering that some of the recent momentum for intensified defense ties has come amid the political dynamics at play in both countries that could shift with upcoming transitions. Nonetheless, at least for now, both sides appear to be serious about following through, with Cambodian news outlet Khmer Times cited a defense ministry spokesman as confirming that Cambodia would be sending personnel for the exercise in Thailand and that Phnom Penh and had asked Bangkok about how to address issues resulting from natural disasters along the border.
Furthermore, while Thai and Cambodian military officials have been keen to suggest that this is further evidence of a new era in defense ties and that the Preah Vihear dispute is a thing of the past, the fact remains that the dispute itself, along with other lingering challenges for the relationship, are still there even if they are being better managed for now. All that is to say that even though both countries may be keen to further their military ties now, the reality is that there is still much uncertainty about what lies ahead despite the sunny rhetoric we are hearing.