Hundreds of Cambodians poured across the Thai border in the northwestern town of Poipet on Friday after the re-opening of the frontier following talks between Thailand and Cambodia to rebuild relations shattered by the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh.
Millions of dollars in trade have been lost in both countries and thousands of poor Cambodians hit by serious food shortages since the Cambodian border was sealed earlier this month by Prime Minister Hun Sen .
The premier closed the border in retaliation for Bangkok’s continued refusal to allow Thai nationals travel to Cambodia in the wake of the riots. He also claimed that Thai border forces were responsible for the widespread killing of Cambodian citizens in the border region.
However, Thai officials maintain that Hun Sen’s actions were forced by massive losses—estimated at between $7- $12 million a week—to Cambodia’s once-thriving border casino businesses as a result of Thai gamblers being prevented from entering Cambodia.
“The meeting was very successful and fruitful…both delegations agreed to open the border crossing,” said An Sum, Banteay Meanchey province deputy governor and a member of the Cambodian team attending the talks on Friday.
“From now on, let the Thai and Cambodians trade with each other as they did before the January 29 events,” An Sum said, declining to elaborate further on issues discussed during the two hours of talks in Thailand.
The talks kicked off with Sok An, Cambodia’s minister of cabinet and head of the team to normalize relations, being met on the Cambodian side of the border by Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai.
The Thai minister symbolically crossed the border to invite the Cambodian officials to the talks in the Thai town of Aranyaprathet.
Later, both ministers announced the border opening at a press conference held on a line demarcating their mutual border in Poipet town.
Full normalization of relations was a work in progress, Surakiart said. “We will make a review to upgrade relations to the ambassador level at the appropriate time…. The process of normalization will be done step by step,” he said, the Associated Press reported.
News of the opening spread quickly and hundreds of Cambodians surged across the frontier as barriers were removed by Thai and Cambodian border security forces. In their haste to enter Thailand, they did not pay the 1,000 riel fee for one-day entry passes.
Thai staff employed at casinos in Poipet were also seen crossing the border from Thailand, most returning to jobs they were prevented from attending since Bangkok ordered the border closed after the riots.
After his talks with the Thai foreign minister, Sok An visited the Golden Crown Casino and Hotel. He later returned to Phnom Penh.
Reopening the border will improve relations between Hun Sen and Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who have traded stinging, verbal attacks since Cambodian rioters torched the Thai Embassy and more than a dozen Thai-owned businesses, causing damages estimated at $50 million.
Cambodia transferred $6 million to Thailand on Monday to compensate for the embassy’s destruction—a gesture that eased cross-border tension and averted the possibility of political rhetoric turning to conflict at the border.
The embassy payment was also a pre-condition for Friday’s meeting and the re-opening of the border, officials said.
Thailand’s powerful military chiefs were reportedly not impressed with Bangkok’s gestures of conciliation to Phnom Penh.
Thai Defense Minister General Thammarak Isarangkuru na Ayudhaya told the Bangkok Post on Thursday that he opposed re-opening the border and refused to join Friday’s talks.
“They counter-attacked us [by closing their border], but we will reopen checkpoints. Isn’t that too easy? I think it is a matter of dignity. But the decision lies with the Foreign Affairs Ministry,” he said.
“There are only two groups of people affected by the border closure—traders and casino owners in Cambodia who have pushed for the reopening. Casino owners want the checkpoint reopened so Thai people can cross the border for gambling,” he added.
Fire ripped through 24 Cambodia-owned stalls at the Long Keur Market in Aranyaprathet on Thursday shortly after a visit by Defense Minister Thamarak.
Pich Saran, Cambodian Immigration Police chief in Poipet town, said Thai authorities are blaming the fire on an electrical fault.
Pich Saran said stocks of shoes and clothes owned by Cambodian vendors were destroyed.
“We can trade across the border as before and the poor workers can have another chance to survive,” said Sab Tong Heng, 35, a stall owner who returned to Long Keur market on Friday.
(Additional reporting Kevin Doyle)