After months of verbal warfare with Thailand over disputed border territory, Prime Minister Hun Sen flew to New York yesterday where, among other duties, he is expected to meet for a private, face-to-face meeting with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The two leaders, who last met for a brief photo opportunity at the Mekong River Summit in Thailand in April, have agreed to meet on the sidelines of the US-Asean leaders meeting in New York on Friday in what both countries claim is a positive step forward for bilateral relations.
Tensions have run high between the two nations since Cambodia’s Preah Vihear temple was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2008, an event that led to military clashes between the two nations at the border area nearby.
This week the Council of Ministers’ press and quick reaction unit chastised Thai officials for their “campaign of intoxication” after they linked Cambodians to an alleged assassination plot against Mr Abhisit.
Government officials from both countries were keeping mum this week about the topics to be discussed during the informal meeting but stressed that improving the bilateral relations was at the top of the two leaders’ agendas.
Prior to Mr Hun Sen’s departure yesterday, his adviser Srey Thamrong said the premier was looking to expand the amount of cooperation between the two nations.
“Samdech will meet [with Mr Abhisit] and will be trying to make the relationship improve, reduce the confrontation between the forces and expand cooperation between the people, authorities and the soldiers along the border,” Mr Thamrong said. “We are trying to shorten the dispute, but extend the cooperation.”
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said by telephone on Tuesday that Mr Abhisit, who had also flown to New York yesterday, was also expecting the meeting to help improve relations between the two nations.
“The media has speculated and we also anticipate that the two leaders will exchange conversation on…how to improve the relationship,” Mr Panitan said, adding that he did not know what topics would be discussed.
“This is the first time that they have met in months. It will be up to the two leaders to decide what they are going to talk about.”
Other Cambodian government officials said they, too, were unaware of what topics were up for discussion. “I have no idea what will be talked about,” said Phay Siphan, Council of Ministers spokesman.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he did not know what was on the meeting agenda but said he believed that the talks would help dissolve the tension between the two nations.
Solving the tension, however, may take more than a quick catch-up on the sidelines of a meeting in New York, according to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at the Asean Studies Center.
“More than anything, the meeting is symbolic. It is a symbol of relationship returning to normal,” Mr Pavin said in an e-mail from Washington. It is “nothing more than that, I guess […]. Both countries still need more time to get back to the discussion table and revisit the temple issue.”
Mr Pavin, however, said he believed the meeting could lead to more civility between the two nations. “I think it is possible now that the diplomatic channel has been once again opened,” he said.
Friday’s scheduled meeting comes about a month after full diplomatic relations were restored between the two countries, following fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s resignation as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government.
Mr Hun Sen and Mr Abhisit have also agreed to meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe meeting in Brussels next month.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)