Regional strongmen forge deeper ties

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) and his domestic adversary, Sam Rainsy. Source: Wikimedia

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-ocha, have agreed to stimulate bilateral trade by 300 per cent to US$15 billion by 2020.

They also signed a deal to open two more border crossings and a train line between Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

During a summit meeting in Bangkok, the two leaders signed deals aimed at increasing trade, security and tourism, as well as cooperation in agriculture and labour, it was announced.

“On trade and investment, the two prime ministers agreed to triple the current bilateral trade volume by 2020,” a post-meeting statement said. Trade between the two countries, which have a complex relationship, reached US$5 billion last year, with Cambodia’s exports accounting for US$571 million, Cambodia’s Commerce Ministry said.

The deals signed by Hun Sen and General Prayuth also discussed special economic zones (SEZs) in the border provinces of Banteay Meanchey and Koh Kong in Cambodia and Sa Kaeo and Trat in Thailand.

“Train service between Phnom Penh and Bangkok would start operation by the end of 2016,” it was announced.
“The aforementioned international checkpoints and the SEZs will transform the border area into a major trading and production hub,” the premiers’ joint statement added, noting that this would open the border for the “free movement of people and labour in the area”.

They signed a labour agreement under which Thailand would train Cambodians, said they would develop “sister hospitals” on the border for migrants and pledged to promote a “Two Kingdoms, One Destination” tourism campaign.

The meetings marked the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Thailand, and Prayuth said relations between the countries were “the best” they had ever been.

This is not saying much as there is a long history of border tensions between the neighbours and both nations have delved into the murkier aspects of the other’s internal politics.

Hun Sen said the Thai military strongman, who seized power in a coup last May, had been invited to a joint retreat in Cambodia next year, adding that he planned to write a song about how well the two countries were strengthening ties.

“We have now seen the two sides sign a joint statement on various problems, including those related to migrant workers and training on human resources,” Hun Sen said, while standing next to Prayuth.

“The Thai side is responsible for constructing the railway and I will write a song for the ‘friendship bridge’ and people from the two sides will be able to dance together with the song,” he said.

Jayant Menon, an economist at the Asian Development Bank, said that the deal to promote increased investment and the free flow of labour suggested that Cambodia had embraced Thailand’s potential as an employment destination for its population with potential to generate income through migrants’ remittances.

“You would imagine that growth areas in Cambodia are not just for more agriculture products but more processed products. And for Cambodia, importing more manufactured goods from Thailand,” he said.

Recently there was another argument between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, who was faced with an arrest warrant while out of the country.

Hun Sen has outlasted all other Asean leaders, except Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, and has seen off at least 14 Thai prime ministers. He says he is keen to go on ruling.

However, in reality, he is preparing for a transition of power to the next generation. He has successfully promoted high economic growth for the 14.8 million Cambodians he rules over. Since the Paris peace accord of 1991, Hun Sen has portrayed himself as the father of modern Cambodia, presiding over impressive growth of 7.5 per cent per year, one of the best in the region.

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