Cambodia unexpectedly sealed all land border crossings with Thailand on Wednesday morning in what is being called a retaliatory act against Bangkok’s continued ban on Thai nationals crossing the border to Cambodia, officials said.
The border will remain closed until Bangkok agrees to resume full normalization of the border opening between both countries, which was suspended following the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh, said a government official on condition of anonymity.
A Western diplomat characterized the closure as a dangerous development and displayed a level of “brinkmanship” by Phnom Penh, given the degree of anger still harbored in Thailand.
“It’s a problem for the income for [Cambodia’s] casinos, so they are frustrated,” Thai Defense Minister Thammarak Issarangkul Na Ayutthaya told Agence France-Presse.
An Interior Ministry statement issued Wednesday said that though Cambodia has made every effort to restore relations with Thailand and provide security for Thai interests, the situation on the border has not been normalized.
The statement also said the decision was made to maintain “the safety of Cambodian citizens on the border.”
A Thai diplomat at the recently opened Thai charge d’affaires office in Phnom Penh said on Wednesday they had not been officially notified of the border closure and were waiting for the government to clarify its position in a press statement.
Thai television news reports featured the closure prominently on Wednesday evening with video footage of mounds of unsold fruit and vegetables at an empty Thai market located opposite Poipet town.
“The Thai authorities do not allow their people to cross the border…. Their excuse is, for the security reasons that Thais cannot cross. So this is a big problem,” the Cambodian government official said.
According to the official, Thai claims of continued insecurity in Cambodia were undermining Phnom Penh’s efforts to repair relations.
While the closure will affect Cambodians along the border, it will also inflict economic hardships on Thailand, which exports millions of baht worth of goods to Cambodia each week, the official said.
“Frankly speaking, we can depend on ourselves…. We close the western border, but we can open the eastern border,” said the official.
Thai Police Chief General Sant Sarutanon told AFP that “we are not suffering.”
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the border was sealed on the instruction of the Interior Ministry, but said the decision was made for security reasons. He denied the decision came from the continuing ban on Thai nationals crossing to Cambodia.
An Asian diplomat said on Wednesday the closure added further to a “very silly political squabble.”
The Western diplomat said the closure was very “worrying” and would mostly impact poor Cambodians who relied for their livelihoods on doing business with Thailand.
The Western diplomat also noted that Bangkok’s ban on their nationals traveling to Cambodia has devastated this country’s lucrative border casino industry.
Many of the 5,000 staff working at casinos in Poipet have been forced to return home because of the drop off in Thai gamblers, Sar Chamrong, O’Chrou district chief, said on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting David Kihara)