Thai Official Calls for Warmer, Closer Bond

Thailand’s deputy commerce minister called for a renewal of economic cooperation with Cambodia yesterday during the first visit from a Thai official since the normalization of diplomatic relations last week, and urged the neighbors to put their disputes behind them.

Speaking at a news conference in the capital yesterday, Alongkorn Ponlaboot also proposed the creation of sister economic zones along the countries’ shared border to boost trade and create tens of thousands of new jobs for Cambodians.

Leading a delegation of more than 50 politicians, businessmen and journalists, Mr Alongkorn arrived in Cambodia on Saturday evening and planned to leave for Vietnam this morning.

Though few concrete announcements emerged and though participants at the event, billed as a discussion of journalism in Asean countries, spoke only in passing of the border dispute at Preah Vihear temple, its political context was clear. [[[[RELATED STORY PAGE 31]]]]

Mr Alongkorn’s arrival came less than a week after Cambodia announced the resignation of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from his role as an economic adviser to Cambodia.

Angered by the appointment in October of the fugitive former premier–who is wanted on corruption charges at home–Thailand withdrew its ambassador to Cambodia the next month. Cambodia responded by immediately withdrawing its own ambassador from Bangkok. With Mr Thaksin’s resignation on Aug 23, the two countries returned their ambassadors last week.

Mr Alongkorn said the dispute over the 4.6 square km next to Preah Vihear temple, a zone claimed by Thailand using a map that Cambodia does not recognize, should not lead to continued acrimony.

“We could see that after years of fighting in Jerusalem, there were only ruined buildings, death, tears, and wounds,” Mr Alongkorn said yesterday. “I would like all of you…to join together to build our new future together, heal old wounds and forget the past we should not remember, and remember the new beautiful memories with a smile to create more jobs and tourism and boost trade and investment.”

Mr Alongkorn said he would follow up his visit with a formal proposal to the Thai government for a special economic zone, or SEZ, in Sa Kaew province–across the border from the O’Neang industrial estate which Cambodia is preparing in Poipet City–and a new border checkpoint to ease traffic between the two.

If successful, he said the plan could spawn tens of thousands of new jobs in Cambodia and help stem the flow of migrant laborers entering Thailand in search of work.

Mr Alongkorn offered no details about the plan and said he hoped to have a draft before the Thai Council of Ministers within three months.

After the conference, Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bun Chhay welcomed the idea. He stressed the need for a second border checkpoint to ease congestion at the Poipet checkpoint 30 km away, and blamed a local border dispute for delays in setting up the O’Neang SEZ.

“Now we are starting [negotiations] again…It is a good sign,” said Mr Bun Chhay, who declined to give details about the dispute or the progress of the talks. “If both countries have the same will, we will solve it soon.”

Among those joining the Thai delegation was Duongjai Chanthong, head of economic promotion with neighboring countries at the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

“Our main goal now is to open the border checkpoint, logistics, and to boost both countries’ trade,” she said.

Bilateral trade between Thailand and Cambodia plummeted by nearly a quarter last year compared to 2008, according to figures provided by the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh. Commerce officials have blamed the slump solely on the global economic crisis, rejecting any political connection.

Though bilateral trade has picked up this year, rising 7.14 percent to $232.3 million in the first half, Cambodia continues to run a towering deficit, with the value of local exports to Thailand dropping 50 percent to 44.12 million, according to the Commerce Ministry.

After meeting with Mr Bun Chhay and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith at the press conference, Mr Alongkorn met with Labor Ministry Secretary of State Othsman Hassan and Commerce Ministry Secretary of State Kem Sithan in the afternoon.


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