Cambodia: A New Opening to Thailand?


Tony Kevin

The new Thaksin Government in Thailand appears to be more sympathetic to Cambodia than its predecessor. The Chairman of the Thai Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dr Kraisak Choonhavan (a son of former Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan), visiting Phnom Penh in March, called for the two countries to cooperate in developing major natural gas deposits in the disputed maritime border zone (a Cambodian policy aim on which Thailand had been stalling under its previous government). He urged a new openness in Thai policy towards Cambodia and admission of Thai military support for the Khmer Rouge in the years of civil war after 1979.

Completion of the Khmer Rouge tribunal law (already passed by both houses of parliament) stalled at the final stage, on two issues. First, politically insensitive renewed demands from UN Chief Legal Counsel Hans Corell that the Cambodian Government must spell out explicit written assurances that the King’s 1996 Cambodian amnesty would not shield former senior Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary from prosecution. The general consensus in Phnom Penh (supported by the US Embassy) is that this is the reality, and Hun Sen has given repeated assurances that Ieng Sary could be prosecuted by the proposed tribunal. But Corell’s insistence on cast-iron guarantees is seen in Phnom Penh as needlessly humiliating the King.

The second problem is that the Constitutional Council has sent the bill back to parliament on the technical grounds that it omitted to rule out the death penalty for those found guilty by the tribunal of genocidal crimes (Cambodian law does not allow the death penalty). Again, this seems like a quibble - some lawyers argue that the Cambodian law would automatically prevail over the tribunal law. But the Constitutional Council insists the laws go back to Parliament to rectify this omission. No one seems too worried about the further delay - the political heat has gone out of the issue.

The long-awaited law governing commune-level elections (originally called for by UNTAC in 1993) was finally passed in February, and in April the government announced that commune elections will be held in February 2002 - just over a year before the 2003 scheduled national elections. Power at commune level held by village headmen has remained pretty much a CPP monopoly since 1993. The international community is keen to see more democracy introduced at this grassroots level.

Funcinpec will not be a serious competitor to CPP in the commune elections. Funcinpec’s 20th Anniversary congress in March reaffirmed the policy since the 1998 settlement of close cooperation as CPP’s junior partner in government. The King’s younger brother Prince Norodom Sirivudh is slated to replace commoner Tol Lah as Secretary-General of the Party, opening a smooth path for Sirivudh to step up to the Presidency when (as is expected) Ranariddh succeeds Sihanouk as King. These developments further lock in Funcinpec’s role as the royalist patronage vehicle, and unlikely ever to become a serious democratic alternative or political threat to CPP. The Sam Rainsy Party continues to have potential for real development outside its present narrow urban middle-class protest base, but such expansion would probably require a change of leadership: Sam Rainsy has painted himself into too tight a corner.

The depressing round of media stories about development-related corruption, environmental exploitation and human rights abuse continues. To put these in perspective, it should be remembered that similar kinds of abuses prevail throughout the Southeast Asian region, but that in Cambodia there is a particularly alert free press and NGO community poised to expose and combat them.

WATCHPOINT: We may soon see a Thai-Cambodian agreement to begin negotiating a joint development zone in the Gulf of Thailand overlapping claims area.


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