Bangkok and Phnom Penh continued to mend their frayed political relations yesterday with a visit from Thailand’s newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that brought about no major breakthroughs but did secure pledges to move forward on a number of issues.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and Ms Yingluck touched on everything from contested offshore oil reserves to a possible early release for a pair of jailed Thai spies during a closed-door meeting that lasted more than an hour at the premier’s office.
It was Ms Yingluck’s first visit to Cambodia since she and her Pheu Thai Party swept to power in national elections last July, dethroning an incumbent government under which Thai-Cambodian relations took a severe downturn.
Speaking with a scrum of reporters after the meeting between the two premiers, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong said Ms Yingluck—as expected—raised the case of jailed Thai nationalist Veera Somkwamkid and his assistant, Ratree Pipattanapaiboon. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted the pair of espionage and illegally entering Cambodia in January, sentencing them to eight and six years in jail, respectively.
Mr Hun Sen has repeatedly insisted that the two would not be pardoned until, as demanded by Cambodian law, they had served at least two-thirds of their terms. But yesterday, he appeared to open the door to a way around the law.
Mr Namhong said the government was looking at the possibility of reducing their original sentences.
“Samdech [Hun Sen] and the government are checking into it,” he said. “We can propose to the King to reduce the punishment step by step, but Cambodia needs to respect our laws that they must serve two-thirds of their jail terms first.”
Thai media had speculated that Ms Yingluck would be heading back to Thailand with the two convicts.
The two premiers agreed, however, to resume stalled talks over how to split future revenues from disputed oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand.
In 2009, Thailand threatened to cancel a 2001 memorandum of understanding that called on the two countries to jointly develop 27,000 square km of maritime space in the Gulf widely believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves. It also barred both countries from developing the area until a comprehensive solution was reached.
The move came in retaliation to Mr Hun Sen’s recent decision to appoint fugitive former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra—Ms Yingluck’s older brother, who is wanted at home for an abuse of power conviction—as his economic adviser.
The Thai Cabinet got as far as endorsing a proposal from the Foreign Affairs Ministry to cancel the memorandum, though the Thai Parliament never followed through.
“Samdech Prime Minister said that we must start negotiating openly between the two governments…based on the 2001 MOU and existing mechanisms,” Mr Namhong said yesterday.
He said the pair also reaffirmed their intentions to heed a July 18 ruling from the International Court of Justice that ordered both sides to pull their soldiers back from Preah Vihear temple, the scene of several brief but deadly clashes over contested land since 2008.
The international court created a demilitarized zone around Preah Vihear and ordered both countries to pull their troops out of the zone.
Bangkok and Phnom Penh quickly pledged to honor the order, though neither has yet complied. Yesterday, it appeared that Cambodia had not dropped its stand that Indonesian observers take up positions inside the demilitarized zone before any withdrawals could start, a prospect the powerful Thai military has thus far balked at.
“We use the word ‘facilitation’ of the military from the demilitarized zone, which requires the Indonesian observers,” Mr Namhong said.
He added that the two leaders also agreed to speed up plans for a new border crossing in Poipet City and to schedule another meeting for the Inter-Governmental Committee, which brings together the two countries’ foreign ministers to discuss a broad range of bilateral issues.
“Samdech Prime Minister called the visit of Her Excellency Yingluck the tongue and teeth mission, comparing Thai and Cambodian relations to the tongue and teeth,” Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said. “Sometimes they fight with each other, but we cannot separate them.”
Ms Yingluck was scheduled to fly out of Cambodia yesterday evening after meeting King Norodom Sihamoni.