Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the political stakes in a growing diplomatic rift with Thailand, claiming that Cambodians have been killed by Thai security forces and saying the government’s decision to close the frontier is an attempt to keep his people safe.
He also said the move was meant to counter unequal trade relations that have developed since the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh.
Listing several cases in which he claimed Cambodians had been killed or beaten on the border since the riots, Hun Sen said that Thai security forces may be using their “war on drugs” as an excuse to target Cambodians.
“As the prime minister of an independent state, I have the duty to protect our people from danger,” Hun Sen said at an opening ceremony for a new hospital in Siem Reap province.
“The best way to solve this problem is to stop Cambodians from crossing into Thai soil. This is the responsibility of a sovereign state,” Hun Sen said.
A visibly irate Hun Sen blasted Bangkok’s slowness in restoring ties with Cambodia but called on Cambodians not to hate their larger and more developed neighbor.
Hun Sen said Cambodia was ready to normalize relations, but warned that the Cambodian military was also prepared to respond with force to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Hun Sen’s tough talk on Thai relations was characterized as “electioneering” by a Western diplomat on Thursday, who said the prime minister was pandering to public resentment that has lingered since the anti-Thai rampage and the large compensation package—estimated at more than $50 million—Phnom Penh has agreed to pay.
Cambodia closed its border with Thailand on Wednesday, citing security concerns and stating that it was a retaliatory move against Thailand, which has not allowed its nationals to cross the border since the riots. Cambodians had been recently allowed to enter Thailand to trade and buy goods.
“This is not fair for bilateral trade…. So Cambodia should turn another way and Thai products should be kept in Thailand, not imported to Cambodia. If there is no equality, we should not open the border,” the premier said.
“I would like to plead to our people not to keep anger against Thai people or commit any violence against their representatives in Phnom Penh or their businesses. Let government and government tackle this,” Hun Sen added.
Hun Sen then called on Cambodian forces to maintain close relations with their Thai counterparts despite the border closure.
However, he also said RCAF would be prepared to respond to Thai aggression on the border.
“If Thailand shells Cambodia that is another thing, But Khmers should not initiate and shell Thailand. Please authorities do not point guns at Thailand,” Hun Sen said.
“But if they fight us it is another thing…. We have to protect our sovereign and independent state. We want friendship but we also want to protect the honor and dignity of the nation,” he said.
Declining to comment on the increased rhetoric, a Thai diplomat in Phnom Penh said on Thursday the mission was waiting on a translation of Hun Sen’s speech.
However, a Western diplomat said that Bangkok’s reaction to the statement would be crucial in determining the trajectory of the feud.
But Bangkok is likely to take an extremely measured response to Hun Sen’s remarks, and will want to maintain “the high moral ground” it has held since the riots, the diplomat said.
“The prime minister is in campaign mode,” the diplomat said, noting that stirring a dispute with Thailand and playing the nationalism card could reap results for Hun Sen’s CPP in July’s elections.
That RCAF was prepared to defend the border militarily was based more on Hun Sen’s “bravado than reality,” the diplomat said.
RCAF General Bun Seng, commander of Military Region 5, which includes Battambang, Pursat and Banteay Meanchey provinces and Pailin town, said on Thursday that no reinforcements have been sent to border areas.
Though the Thais have wronged Cambodia, RCAF has no plans for a border conflict, Bun Seng said.
“What Thailand is doing is making us lose our reputation,” Bun Seng said.
National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said on Thursday he had attempted to contact Hun Sen but was unsuccessful.
“It shows that relations between both of our countries have not returned to normal,” Prince Ranariddh said.
Several traders in the northwest said the effects of the closure were already being felt in Poipet town.
“I have nothing to do. I will have to look for a job in Phnom Penh to feed my family,” said Sa Mean, a Cambodian trader who worked in the Thai border market opposite Poipet.
Sa Mean said her stock of second-hand shoes was stuck across the sealed border.
Pouk Khan, a motorcycle taxi driver in Poipet, said the price of gasoline had already jumped in the town, and customers were dwindling as traders were packing up and heading back to their home provinces.
“I will have to go back to my village in Battambang to farm. If I stay here how can I survive?” he asked.
Hun Sen also acknowledged the border closure would affect the amount of goods imported from Thailand, but said Cambodia could turn to China, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore or Vietnam as a substitute trading partner.
Hun Sen said he wanted cordial and equal relations with Thailand, and it is up to Bangkok to begin the process which will be reciprocated, in equal measures, by Phnom Penh.
“You kill and wound my people and do not say anything. I closed the border to prevent my people dying. So is it my fault?” Hun Sen said.
(Reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly, Thet Sambath, Lor Chandara and Kevin Doyle)