Has Cambodia Mobilized Enough Brains to Work on the Conflict with Thailand?

Campro Discussions on April 25-26, 2011
Compiled by Ros Khemara

The conflict between Thailand and Cambodia has entered its 4th year with the scale of armed clashes increasing bigger and bigger over time. The latest heavy fighting took place in April 2011, involving tonnes of heavy weaponry that killed at least 16 lives and temporarily displaced tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border.

While the conflict originated in 2008 following a successful bid of Cambodia to enlist Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage, the root cause of the conflict seems to be deeper than just the temple listing. Several political analysts cited Preah Vihear Temple as being a victim of Thailand’s internal political turmoil.

In CAMPRO, several discussions were generated around the issue and many feared the conflict might need a long time to be resolved. Given this long-time prospect, Mr. Chan Sophal raised an important question as to whether Cambodia has put together the best team Cambodia can get to work on resolving the conflict with Thailand.

Chan Sophal: “I have a question to ask and I would be grateful for the answer. Has the Cambodian government put together the best team Cambodia can get to work on resolving the conflict with Thailand? I pay full respect to the current team working on resolving the conflict. I’m just conscious that the team may not have enough supporting staff, hands and brains, means and facilities to make their work more effective.

The conflict is between two countries and the team to work on it should be the best Cambodia CAN get. It should not be just the team the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) can afford and can trust within the ruling party. There could be two constraints (among others) to recruiting more team members: low government salary and trust by party. These may be serious limiting factors for acquiring the best capacity for the team to deal with the conflict with Thailand.

We know there are many Cambodians who may be very good at diplomacy and international relations. Be they retired, or working overseas, or not members of the ruling party, they might be mobilized and employed by RGC to work on resolving the conflict. Spending on weapons may cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year. But spending a few millions dollars on hiring more competent Cambodians may be worthwhile, in my opinion.

Pou Sothirak: “Your suggestion requires a closer and wiser look at the issue on the recent conflict between Cambodia and Thailand- the Preah Vihear issue and the land surrounding the temple.

I do not know if we (the government) have the best team to deal with Thailand’s unpredictability. But I know that many Cambodians are concerned. I am exposed to this issue for quite some time now and have been invited to speak and present paper at a few seminars and conferences, the latest being the AAS conference in Honolulu in early April. I was also involved in the debate on a TV show (Channel News Asia) in Singapore, in fact I had just gave an interview by phone to the Channel News Asia on this most recent arm clashes today.

This is complex issue and involves not only the bilateral relations between the two countries, but it is now affecting ASEAN’s credibility as a whole as it may spill over. Although Cambodia is at the advantage in terms of its open and clear policy on third party mediation and receive stronger international support, but we are dealing with a neighbor that thinks part of Cambodia (including Preah Vihear) belongs to Thailand. More seriously, we are dealing a military leader of Thailand who will do what it takes to ensure that they have the upper hand on this issue.

I agree strongly with you that we should pull all Khmers who have the ability to comprehensively and critically think about this issue and then innovatively propose a policy option, whether it is diplomatic or military to the government.

To achieve this task, we need to contact and gain support from the like-minded individual(s) within the government or members of parliament who have the political clout.”

Ung Bun Ang: “You ask a very good question. It is a kind of question that could lead to a better team for the problem.”

Chan Sophal: “This question came up when I feared it could be a long lasting conflict against a much bigger and richer country. It is NOT a conflict against a smaller Cambodian political party that our rulers are so used to winning. RGC may look for more human resources aside from the members of the ruling party or the comfort zone. I believe Cambodia has offered more great brains. They are not necessarily within the ruling party. They may be in the private sector; they may reside in other countries, having achieved a good career with good international networks and smart diplomacy..”

Mey Kalyan: “I agree with Sophal to have a good team to deal with the richer and stronger Thai. But this idea is beyond my reach. This issue would depend entirely on our leader’s judgment as how he sees as good and enough. It is a subjective judgment. Regarding bringing in our compatriots from abroad to help, in the world I saw two cases:

(i) Taiwan, for example, made special industrial parks just to attract back well trained Taiwanese former students abroad, especially from USA. In the parks, particularly the hi-tech one, Taiwan government built many things, like school, hospital, restaurant etc … really first class, American standard to attract former students back;

(ii) On the contrary, Lao, Vietnam do not welcome people used to live long time abroad, like me. A Lao friend told me that, <>. In this sense, I think our government is relatively open and generous.

In addition to bringing in our well-trained and good experience Khmers inside, I think it is also important to have people living abroad like Lok Phu-on Sothirak speaking courageously to international news media to explain our position. I used to do the same in the UN. In the globalised world, if you don’t speak, you lose. Silence is Not Gold, but Dead. In this sense, I really appreciate and salute Lok Phu-on Sothirak who speaks for our country as well as shares his insights with us. I saw the Channel News Asia interview with a Thai researcher (in your Institute) on the Thai internal political issue. Please speak out more to defend our Khmer interest. Our young people now have good command of English better than Thai, Vietnam, and Lao. And we need many more Sothiraks in the world”.

Chan Sophal: “Thanks a lot for your useful information. I have heard the same from my Vietnamese and Lao counterparts when I worked with them for many years before. Vietnam has many good human resources among its 84 million people. It is a socialist regime so it is understandable that the leadership is not very open to overseas Vietnamese. Cambodia suffers from the loss of many educated people in the Khmer Rouge regime and it is a small country having far less highly-educated people compared to Vietnam and Thailand.

What should be done is first look for more brains within the ruling party (the comfort zone). I’m not sure if the approach of putting the right people in the right jobs is employed exhaustively yet even within the ruling party. Then, they should look beyond the ruling party members but within the country, and then beyond the country. I’m sure there are more competent people with the heart and passion for Cambodia. I believe the current team is very good but may not have enough time to do all what they want, and they may need more people/brains to help.”

Vong Sam Ang: “I totally agree with Bong Sophal that setting up the best team to handle with Thailand is the right approach and it is also the fundamental issue of human resources management “putting the right people at the right place”. I think RGC has been so far mobilizing retired professionals and expats to handle this issue. However, it is just an ad hoc movement and too many on the top. The top cannot do much without having enough supporting talented and professional staffs and tools. For the short term, I think we are up to the situation but I am really worried about the long term. The Cambodia -Thai issue is the long term one so we have to have the right team and system in place to be successful in the future.”

Pou Sothirak: “I am heartening that members of CAMPRO are taking the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia seriously – and we should as it affects our homeland security and the livelihood of our people.

I suggest that CAMPRO, under the initiative of Lok Sophal, call for a brainstorming session among those who are interested in Phnom Penh at a suitable location and time. The objective is to explore ways to bring about peaceful solution to this conflict by discussing the issues in a wider context. I am prepared to give a background report to the problem and make some suggestions. Others can give in their views and we can try to put together some recommendations to be presented to our government. I anticipate that more than one meeting is needed to do a credible work on policy recommendations. But the first meeting will help those who are concerned about this issue to start the debate on what need to be done?”

Heng Sour: “Thanks for questioning. To be straight, after the discussion through email, can we hold a face to face meeting of particular people let say between 10-20 to analyze, and propose a roadmap of long term strategy that we could play behind the curtain?”

Srey Chanthy: “… I think a best team should consist of people with great skills in conflict mediation, diplomatic negotiation, and those with good international network…”.

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One Response to Has Cambodia Mobilized Enough Brains to Work on the Conflict with Thailand?

  1. Sorpong PEOU says:

    Just a thought: Border conflicts are usually difficult to resove. Most of them, especially those in Asia, remain unresolved after decades of negotiation. The ICJ depends on the goodwill of states inolved territorial disputes because there are no enforcement mechanisms. At the end of the day, border disputes are usually settled by coercive means or when state leaders see no way out. Asymmetrical power relations between states further complicate things.

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