Thailand’s prime minister, welcomed by throngs of students waving Thai flags and later by students burning Thai flags, arrived in Cambodia Wednesday for a three-day visit to improve border relations between the countries and combat smuggling.
Chuan Leekpai was greeted with the customary military band and honor guard and dozens of Cambodian officials lining the red carpet running from his plane at Pochentong Airport. After posing for photographs with Prime Minister Hun Sen, he left for an audience with King Norodom Sihanouk.
At the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, along the road from the airport, a group of about 100 students burned Thai flags and protested encroachments onto Cambodian soil. The demonstration was broken up by a pro-government group of men, allegedly hired by high-ranking officials.
In the afternoon, Chuan had a closed-door meeting with Hun Sen and several high-ranking officials before overseeing a signing ceremony for three Thai-Cambodian agreements.
Hun Sen thanked the Thai government for the recent return of more than 100 temple artifacts and asked for Thai cooperation in curbing the smuggling of illegally cut logs out of Cambodia, said Penn Thol, spokesman for the council of ministers.
Hun Sen also asked Thailand to support Cambodia in becoming a member of the World Trade Organization and to support Cambodian farmers along the border by buying their crops.
According to Penn Thol, Chuan said he supports Cambodia’s entry into the WTO and praised the two countries’ cooperation in solving border disputes. Chuan said it is better to solve the disputes gradually, to keep a small problem from exploding into violence. Earlier, Prince Sisowath Sirirath, Cambodia’s co-defense minister, said, “As we all know, the agreement on the demarcation of the border” is the most important part of the trip.
There have been several standoffs between Thai and Cambodia soldiers this year, with the Thai military allegedly encroaching on Cambodian soil. No one has been injured in the disputes, which have been blamed on a poorly marked and confusing border.
“The defense ministry does not take it as a matter of concern,” Prince Sirirath said. “Whatever happened at the time was a small thing. We have been able to patch it up quite nicely.”
Last week, Thai and Cambodian officials agreed to begin surveying and marking the border, perhaps within the year. The memorandum of understanding was signed Wednesday in the presence of Chuan and Hun Sen.
While at the Council of Ministers, Chuan also witnessed the signing of an agreement to combat the smuggling of artifacts and stolen vehicles.
Cambodian officials have high hopes that Chuan’s visit will improve relations between the two countries. But some in the crowd who gathered to welcome Chuan were not so sure as they stood under a withering morning sun waving flags.
“I do not know why he visits here,” said Suong Leng Kruy, who works in the planning department at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.
He said he and 150 other employees at the ministry were given 5,000 riel each to attend the ceremony and wave Thai flags and cheer when the prime minister’s plane landed.
Suong Leng Kruy scoffed when told the official purpose of Chuan’s visit, to sign agreements on artifact and car smuggling and border disputes.
“It is useless to sign such papers. There is never an outcome. After more than 20 years living in Cambodia,” he said, “I know this attitude very well.”
Chey Choeum, a 16-year-old student from a Hun Sen school, was asked by his teacher to come congratulate the Thai Prime Minister and given small Thai and Cambodian flags.
“Besides this, I know nothing,” he said.
Chey Choeum said he did not know the significance of the visit. “But what I see by my eye, there is no progress yet in the countryside,” he said. “I always hear about donors and organizations providing aid to Cambodia, but everything is still the same.”
The most vocal criticisms came from the Students Movement for Democracy, gathered at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities to rally against Thai encroachment.
But the protest was short-lived. After a few Thai flags were burned, the gathering was interrupted by a half dozen young men hired to stop the demonstration. No injuries were reported in the brief scuffle.
“I was called to come here to crack down on the student rally, but I don’t know how much I will be paid,” said Sun Saroeun, 26, of Prey Veng province, before he was dragged away from reporters by a leader of the group.
Yee Moa, one of the leaders of the group, said he ordered his men to grab the Thai flag, and the student’s banners and microphones. He said he was paying each man between 50,000 and 100,000 riel.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said the leaders of the gang, Yee Moa and Seng Vannara, operate under the authority of Sok An, minister of the Council of Ministers and Mol Roeup, chief of military intelligence.
Chea Sophara said he supported the rally so long as it did not turn violent or block Chuan’s motorcade.
“Because our country is a democracy, the students have a right to make demands,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)