11 July 2024

Thai PBS World has delved into a longstanding issue which has seen a recent surge in hostility: the cultural heritage conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. We explore this complex issue, examining its roots, the roles of online content creators and mainstream media, and the urgent need for collaborative solutions.

The roots of conflict

While Thailand and Cambodia share borders, a long history and numerous cultural similarities – religion, architecture, language, and martial arts to name but a few – these common threads have, ironically, become a source of tension in recent years. Nationalist groups in both countries have made claims of ownership over these shared elements, inflaming tensions. The conflict extends beyond cultural pride and there are numerous key contributing factors.

“Compared to other ASEAN nations, Cambodians have a strong affinity with Thais,” said Dr. Yang Peou, Secretary-General of the Royal Academy of Cambodia. He noted, however, that there are misunderstandings between people in both countries and that the issue is quite complex with history, political influences and a rise in nationalism all playing their parts.

Moreover, the Cambodian scholar mentioned the irresponsible behavior of some online content creators, who exploit the situation for personal gain, by generating inflammatory content and hate speech. These individuals fuel conflict for their own financial benefit.

Dr. Yang Peou, Secretary-General of the Royal Academy of Cambodia

Irresponsible content

The President of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, Puy Kea, stressed the negative impact of irresponsible online content creators, who create a lot of problems for traditional and professional media.

“We have to reduce tension as much as possible through the professional media and the communication between the journalist’s associations in Cambodia and Thailand”, he said.

Puy Kea, the President of the Club of Cambodian Journalists.

Puy Kea also noted that Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Manet considers this issue a priority. He has repeatedly emphasised the importance of professional media and the Ministry of Information in combating fake news. He even spoke about the effects of “information disorder” at the World Press Freedom Day event in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 3rd, 2024, stating that it can lead to conflict between people and countries, and even lead to war.

A parallel world

Thailand and Cambodia are both social media-savvy nations, with roughly 70% of their populations on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, according to datareport.com. Thailand has a larger population though; 72 million compared to Cambodia’s 17 million.

Social media users in both countries are being bombarded daily with increasingly hostile claims about cultural ownership. This constant exposure risks them mistaking the misinformation for fact. Consequently, they come to loathe each other.

Long Sovitou, a lecturer and researcher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, highlighted the importance of the virtual world, stating, “The physical space and the online space can have effects on one another. We can see that there is a thinning of the wall between those two spaces. So, we shouldn’t treat the online space as something unimportant.”

Long Sovitou, a lecturer and researcher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Digital skills

Perhaps the most critical tool in tackling these online conflicts is developing digital skills. Dr. Sikares Sirakan, a media expert, opined that social media users should know how to consume online information wisely and how to fact-check and distinguish between misinformation and the truth using AI applications. He mentioned the reporting mechanisms employed by major social media platforms, through which users can flag up inappropriate content.

The expert also called on the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (DES) to take it seriously.

“It impacts the national relationship, so I would like to ask the government, I mean both governments, but especially the Thai Government, to get serious about this matter, because we have a huge amount trade between Thailand and Cambodia”, said Dr. Sikares.

Dr. Sikares Sirakan, a media expert.

Combating online tension

Online conflicts, relating to cultural ownership, have spilled over into the real world, resulting in challenging situations for both Thais and Cambodians. Before things get out of control, urgent action is needed. It’s time for both countries to develop coping mechanisms for online conflicts.

Puy Kea suggested that Thai and Cambodian social media users, including citizen journalists and the general public, refrain from posting or sharing content that could engender negative sentiments or misunderstandings between the two peoples and our countries.

While Dr. Yang Peou noted the important role of mainstream media, he suggested that, by visiting each other’s nations, media outlets could produce content highlighting the positive aspects of the Thai-Cambodian relationship and the benefits of mutual cooperation. He believes that this content would have a positive impact on both countries.

By Att Boonyatus

Video version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paOehR8eX6c