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Prayuth to make first visit

Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha
Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha next to the Thai flag as he arrives at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on October 16, in Milan, Italy. AFP

Prayuth to make first visit

Analysis

When then-Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha launched a bloodless coup d’etat against a caretaker government on May 22, the Cambodian government at first reacted cautiously.

On the night of the coup, a spokesman said it hoped the military takeover would be “transitional”.

But despite his administration’s close links with the deposed Thai premier, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her brother Thaksin – and its prickly relationship with the Thai military – Prime Minister Hun Sen soon made a series of conciliatory gestures that suggested he recognised that the junta was here to stay.

Today, Prayuth was to arrive in Cambodia for his first official visit since being appointed prime minister by a military-majority National Assembly in August. He was personally invited by Hun Sen on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe summit in Milan earlier this month.

The two-day visit is being hailed as another possible turning point in Cambodia-Thai relations, which have long fluctuated in line with the revolving door of turbulent Thai politics.

“The visit of PM Prayuth Chan-ocha to Cambodia will not only be crucial for the immediate future of Thai-Cambodian relations, it will set the tone for relations over the next few years,” said Paul Chambers of the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, affiliated with Chiang Mai University.

“Why? Because both the Thai military and Hun Sen are likely to remain the power brokers in their respective countries over the next several years.”

Prayuth’s military clique is “highly suspicious” of Hun Sen, given his ties to the Shinawatras and the long-running dispute over land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple, Chambers said. But the visit of top Cambodian military brass, including the premier’s son and possible successor, Hun Manet, to Bangkok in July, could be regarded as an olive branch of sorts, he said, paving the way for a thaw in relations.

Bilateral talks during the visit, which will also see Prayuth granted an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni, are set to see memorandums of understanding signed on tourism, human trafficking and a railway connection linking Sa Kaew province in Thailand to Poipet and onto Phnom Penh.

However, there are hopes for far more.

A long-awaited agreement on a joint development area in the Gulf of Thailand, which would allow mutual exploration of possible oil and gas deposits, could be in the offing, analysts say. But the deal remains complicated by decades-old overlapping claims.

And while the International Court of Justice in November last year decided that Cambodia had sovereignty over the promontory that the Preah Vihear temple sits on, the practicalities of the decision have yet to be implemented. A large area in the vicinity also still remains in dispute.

But while both Hun Sen and Prayuth stand to gain from a more stable and cooperative relationship between the two countries, there are serious doubts that any long-term accord will last.

Other sensitive issues include the ongoing shootings of Cambodian loggers at the Thai border and the welfare of Cambodian migrant workers, hundreds of thousands of which fled back to the Kingdom after the Thai military pledged a crackdown on illegal foreign labour shortly after the coup.

“Right now, peace seems to be more important for both Thailand and Cambodia,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Southeast Asia scholar at Kyoto University who is highly critical of the military government, and who recently had his Thai passport revoked.

“But whenever contentious conflicts can be used to add political scores, these difficult issues will come to the surface. Hun Sen has always seen Thaksin-Yingluck as his long-term interest. So I think the improvement in [the] relationship with the Thai junta could be short-lived.”

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