Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday called for a cease-fire and talks with Thailand but promised that Cambodia would cut off trade if Thailand went forward with rumored border closures.
“Cambodia is poor and has a small force, but don’t forget that even the ant makes the elephant hurt,” he said during a speech yesterday at the prime minister’s office building.
“Cambodia appeals for a ceasefire. Stay where you are,” he added.
While the rumor of border closures could not be confirmed yesterday by Thai or Cambodian officials, Mr Hun Sen referred to it repeatedly in his speech, noting that Cambodia would retaliate economically if Thailand took this step.
“I would like to announce to Cambodia that if Thailand closes the border, we will stop buying Thai products,” he said. “If they close the border, why would we bother to use Thai products?”
The value of Cambodian imports from Thailand in the first 11 months of last year was $457 million more than the value of Cambodian exports in the same period, according to the Commerce Ministry.
Referring to the lopsided trade figures between the two nations, Mr Hun Sen also noted that Thailand was far more likely to suffer from severed ties.
“Who gains and who loses?” he asked. “Cambodia won’t lack products. We can have products from Vietnam and China, from everywhere, since Cambodia is a free market.”
Thani Thongphakdi, spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry, said yesterday that he had no information about a potential border closure.
“I think it’s a hypothetical question,” he said in response to queries concerning Mr Hun Sen’s warning.
In 2009, Thai threats of a border closure following diplomatic tension resulted in significant trade woes, said Chheng Kimlong, a lecturer in economics at the University of Cambodia.
“There was a dramatic decease in trade for a few months. Traders and investors in both countries were uncomfortable,” he said.
If trade were to be cut, Mr Kimlong said, it would take each country an estimated six months before it could realistically replace incoming goods and services.
“It would have quite a large impact. It includes not only the trade but also the labor…and also Thai [direct] investment,” he said.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, echoed Mr Kimlong’s analysis but said if Cambodia went forward with such a move, it would be “understandable.”
“Cambodia has no longer been a passive player in this relations and has sought to use other powers, China and Vietnam, to counterbalance the influence of Thailand. It is a valid survival tactic,” he said in an e-mail.
“Thailand will suffer from the border closure,” he added. “Local residents in Thailand rely heavily on trade with Cambodia. So if the rumor turns out to be true, this will add another layer of pressure on Thai government.”
Thai media yesterday reported that local business associations and the Thai Chamber of Commerce were calling on the government to keep checkpoints open. In Cambodia, Khaou Phallaboth, president of the Khaou Chuly Group, whose companies have received significant Thai investment, said yesterday that a halt on trade would be “very, very problematic.”
“Two years ago, there was minimal impact. But if repeated, it creates some malaise in the mood of the people,” he said. “I hope that Thailand will be clever enough not to [close the borders] because they will hurt more.”
Border trade appeared to continue more or less as usual yesterday.
“Nothing’s changed at the border. It’s calm,” said Lo Mithona, deputy director of the northwest military border coordination office. “There’s 100 or 200 trucks coming through, carrying cement and other stuff to Cambodia and they’re passing right in front of my office. Just like normal.”