Phnom Penh Hails ‘Red Shirt’ Return to Power

Cambodia yesterday welcomed the victory in Sunday’s elections of Thailand’s Pheu Thai Party, headed by the sister of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and said the result could lead to a new era of improved political and economic relations.

Prime Minister Hun Sen had since 2008 often spoken of his distaste for Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai premier and Sunday’s losing candidate. In 2010, Mr Hun Sen played on Mr Abhisit’s family name, calling him “Vej Chhar”—a Khmer term meaning “long spoon” that can refer to a cuckold.

In the past year alone, Thai and Cambodian armed forces have engaged in deadly combat in February, April and May both at Preah Vihear temple and disputed land in Oddar Meanchey pro­vince. Mr Hun Sen last month accused a Thai official in Paris of threatening to attack Cambodia in the run-up to the country’s elections and said he had placed RCAF troops along the border with Thailand on alert.

But with the “red-shirt” Pheu Thai having won an absolute majority in Thailand’s 500-seat Parliament, Cambodia is hoping that the closer historical ties it shares with Pheu Thai could help foster improved political and economic relations.

“We cannot hide it, we are really happy with the victory of the Pheu Thai Party in Bangkok,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters in Phnom Penh yesterday.

Speaking about the ongoing territorial dispute at Preah Vihear temple, Mr Namhong said: “We hope the new government…will settle the issue with Cambodia more positively and peacefully.”

Pheu Thai, which was founded in 2008 as a reincarnation of Mr Thaksin’s People’s Power Party, has had warmer relations with Cambodia.

Mr Thaksin, who was ousted from power by a coup in 2006, be­came an economic adviser to the Cambodian government in Oc­tober 2009 even though he was a fugitive from Thailand, having been convicted on corruption charges. He was released from this position in August.

Jiranan Wongmongkol, director of foreign trade at the Thai Em­bassy, said a victory for Pheu Thai and its presumptive prime minister, Ying­luck Shinawatra, would foster a more productive relationship on both the political and economic fronts.

Mr Thaksin has described his sister Ms Yingluck as his clone.

“We just know that the new party will make a positive change,” said Ms Jiranan. “Both Cambo­dian and Thai business people will be very pleased.”

General Chea Dara, deputy RCAF commander-in-chief, also expressed hope that the Pheu Thai victory would lead to peace at the border.

While the politicians say the elections could give birth to a more positive era of relations be­tween Cambodia and Thailand, analysts say it is unlikely that much will change, with strong divides still existing in Thailand between an urban class that largely supports the monarchy and military, and poorer members of society that reside in countryside.

“The overall politics, society and economy remains the same because it doesn’t matter what party is in power. Their concern is how to unite the nation,” said Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst based in Phnom Penh. “The national interest of Thailand goes beyond parties.”

Still, there is hope among in­vestors that the Pheu Thai victory will create a rosier business environment between the two countries.

In the aftermath of the fighting between Cambodia and Thailand at Preah Vihear temple this year, investors placed doubt on the potential of increased Thai investment in Cambodia.

In May, the government canceled a trade show in Phnom Penh for security reasons, despite politicians’ saying that trade levels would not be harmed.

Economists and investors share mixed views over what effects Pheu Thai’s victory might have.

Neou Seiha, a senior researcher at the Economic Institute of Cam­bodia, said trade and investment ties with Cambodia were not necessarily set to improve just be­cause the Pheu Thai had won a con­vincing victory.

Rather, ongoing issues regarding cost and trade facilitation would play a larger role.

“The trade between Cambodia and Thailand should not be too much affected,” said Mr Seiha. “Trade will increase year by year as normal.”

Indeed, despite the recent border dispute, bilateral trade with Thailand grew impressively in the first quarter of 2011, jumping 87.62 percent from the same period last year.

Imports from Thailand grew to more than $207 million through March, an 85 percent increase from the same period in 2010, while Cambodian exports have grown threefold, to $6.3 million.

Khaou Phallaboth, executive chairman of KP Group, which has a partnership with the Thai company Siam Cement, said that the result could potentially take both political and economic relations with Thailand on a completely different trajectory.

“Politically I think that it’s a plus,” he said. “It’s rather good news for Cambodia.”

“I am rather optimistic that the investment projects from Thai­land could accentuate,” he added.

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