11 July 2024

Thailand’s Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa visited Phnom Penh on June 27 with a firm focus on enhancing bilateral cooperation, while deliberately downplaying controversial maritime disputes due to political sensitivities in both countries.

The Srettha Thavisin government is walking a tightrope following an intervention by coalition partner Palang Pracharath Party to halt the initiative to settle the contentious issues with Cambodia.

Maris, who was appointed foreign minister in late April, met with all key leaders of Cambodia during the one-day visit, including his counterpart Sok Chenda Sophea, Prime Minister Hun Manet, and Senate President Hun Sen to introduce himself.

Thai Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa (L) pays a courtesy call on Cambodia’s Senate President Hun Sen.

The meetings set the direction for progress in ensuring that the peoples of both nations enjoy sustained peace and harmony, better cross-border trade facilitation, and enhanced business-to-business and people-to-people exchanges, according to a Cambodian Foreign Ministry press statement.

75th anniversary celebration

“It was agreed that existing bilateral cooperation mechanisms should be fully utilized. The celebration of the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries next year would be an opportunity for both sides to jointly unlock our potential and create new opportunities for shared growth and deeper friendship,” it said.

Sok Chenda Sophea confirmed his plan to visit Thailand in September for a meeting of the Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation, a key mechanism for enhancing bilateral relations in all aspects.

The two sides expressed their commitment to realize concrete cooperation projects in priority areas within the framework of the Strategic Partnership between the two countries established earlier this year, according to the press statement released after a meeting of the two foreign ministers.

Keeping it quiet

Before his visit, Maris had told local media in late May that he would bring up the issue of maritime disputes about overlapping claim areas (OCA) in the Gulf of Thailand as well as a breakwater near Trat province’s Khlong Yai border checkpoint.

The press statement issued by Cambodia’s foreign ministry after bilateral talks between the two foreign ministers did not mention a single word about the OCA and the breakwater in question.

A diplomatic source said Maris did raise the issue with Prime Minister Hun Manet, explaining to him political sensitivities at home, as right-leaning nationalist groups have heated up the issue to destabilize the government for their interest.

Thai FM Marisa Sangiampongsa (L) pays a courtesy call on Cambodia’s PM Hun Manet.

“Prime Minister Hun Manet expressed his understanding and vowed to help seek proper solutions for mutual benefit,” according to a source close to the matter.  

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin had discussed and agreed with Hun Manet in February during a visit by the Cambodian premier that the countries resume negotiations to settle the disputes on overlapping maritime claims over 26,000 square kilometers of area and jointly develop hydrocarbon resources.

Hun Manet himself came under attack at home as domestic nationalists accused him of treason for making a deal with Thailand on petroleum resource development.

Maris told reporters that his government was willing to cooperate with Cambodia to extract the hydrocarbon resource in the overlapping claim area but needed to handle the issue with extreme caution.

A controversial MOU

“So many technicalities are involved in the matter, we need both legal and energy experts to take on this issue,” Maris said and insisted that the negotiation of sea boundary delimitation and joint development scheme would be conducted simultaneously under the 2001 memorandum of understanding (MOU) framework. 

The two countries had signed the MOU in June 2001 to simultaneously negotiate to delimit the sea boundary and establish a joint development scheme. Negotiations have made no significant progress over the past 23 years due to political difficulties on both sides.

Nationalists in Thailand have done everything to obstruct the plan, demanding that the government scrap the 2001 MOU, fearing loss of territory and national interest.

The latest move took place less than two weeks before Maris visited Cambodia when Palang Pracharath Party’s deputy leader, Paiboon Nititawan, filed a petition with the Constitutional Court seeking a judgment on the constitutionality of the MOU.

Article 178 of the 2017 Constitution requires a treaty signed with a foreign country or international organization that makes changes to territory and impacts economic and social security to get approval from Parliament.

Paiboon said the 2001 MOU had never been approved by the Thai Parliament before the signing, annulling it legally from the beginning. He asked the court to nullify the MOU and the Foreign Ministry to take responsibility for violating the Constitution.

Maris argued earlier that the MOU was not a treaty as defined by international laws, and it obligated no territorial changes.

Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala, also from Palang Pracharat, made his move in late May demanding that the government protest Cambodia’s construction of a breakwater at a beach near the 73rd boundary pillar bordering Cambodia.

While the Thai Foreign Ministry lodged protests three times — twice in 1998 and once in 2021 — Cambodia has already stopped the construction since 1998.

Maris said he would consult with his counterpart again when he visited Phnom Penh. However, the Cambodian press statement did not mention the issue, either.

Cooperation in numerous sectors

During the visit, Maris discussed cooperation in the economic, tourism, cultural, and education sectors. Both countries agreed to create more facilities to boost trade and tourism as well as many other economic activities.

Thailand will soon open a consulate in Siem Reap, while Cambodia will open its own in the Southern province of Songkhla. The two countries will fully operate the Stung Bot-Ban Nong Ian international border checkpoint.

Thai FM Maris Sangiampongsa (L) shakes hands with his Cambodian counterpart Sok Chenda Sophea during the visit.

Maris and his counterpart discussed in detail the potential benefits of establishing complementary special economic zones in border provinces. Such zones would enhance supply-chain connectivity and create economic synergies based on each country’s comparative advantages, according to the press statement.

Bilateral trade between Thailand and Cambodia was valued at US$9 billion last year. Both countries are targeting $15 billion by 2025. As of the end of May, bilateral trade had reached $1.7 billion, up 1.73 per cent year on year.

Thailand was the ninth largest foreign investor in Cambodia with direct investment of $1.6 billion.

On tourism, Cambodia has enjoyed a high number of Thai visitors with 1.82 million last year. A growing number of Cambodians have visited Thailand for business, pleasure, and medical care.

Both sides also acknowledged the importance of promoting the region as a joint tourism destination through various initiatives.

They agreed recently on a common visa scheme to welcome visitors from outside to visit the two countries with one visa.

Cambodia will host the seventh Cambodia-Thailand Joint Working Group Meeting on Tourism Cooperation and the Third Cambodia-Thailand Tourism Ministers’ Meeting in the second half of this year.

Closer bilateral cooperation

As part of cultural and educational promotion, Thailand will continue its contribution to Cambodia’s human resource development with scholarships and technical assistance. Meanwhile, Cambodia will expand the Thai Language Department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh by the end of this year.

A few days before the visit by Maris, the Thai government decided to return the remaining 20 Khmer artifacts confiscated from smugglers in 1999.

A total of 43 pieces had been confiscated. The Fine Arts Department checked their origins and had earlier returned 23 of the pieces to Cambodia in 2008 and 2015.

The Cambodian minister also urged the Thai authorities to provide good care to its migrant workers in Thailand.

As of the end of May, 457,799 documented Cambodians worked in various sectors, including construction, farming, and fishery. Many are at risk of legal trouble as they live and work unlawfully.     

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk//Photo : Foreign Ministry