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Cambodian leader to discuss border issues, trade on first Thailand visit as PM

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet will on Wednesday make his first visit to neighboring Thailand since succeeding his strongman father Hun Sen six months ago.

Hun Manet is scheduled to meet Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in Bangkok for talks on economic development of border areas, bilateral trade, closer transport connectivity and tourism, Thai officials said Monday.

The two leaders may also discuss overlapping territorial claims in the Gulf of Thailand and a longstanding dispute over Preah Vihear, an ancient Hindu temple complex located between the two countries, according to analysts.

Hun Manet, a graduate of U.S. military academy West Point, was in command of Cambodian forces around the temples when the two countries clashed several times over ownership between 2008-11.

Thousands of troops are still deployed along both sides of the border and access to the temple from the Thai province of Sri Saket province remains off limits. 

Pumin Leeteeraprasert, a lawmaker from Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai party, said he hoped that Srettha would address the issue of the Preah Vihear and reopening the border gate to help promote tourism. 

“The prime minister acknowledged our request. It’s up to him to raise the matter with PM Hun Manet,” Pumin told RFA affiliate BenarNews. “The Thai-Cambodian relationship is in good shape, but we have to wait and see the result.” 

In 2013, a judgement by the International Court of Justice ordered Thailand to withdraw its forces in honor of a 1962 resolution that awarded the temple to Cambodia.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet salutes during an inspection of troops at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Cambodian Army in Phnom Penh on January 24, 2024. (AFP)

The temple dispute is not the only source of tension between the Southeast Asian neighbors.

Thailand and Cambodia both assert control over an area of ocean covering roughly 27,000 square meters in the Gulf of Thailand.

The overlapping claims area could hold 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, large quantities of condensate and oil, according to CLC Asia, a government affairs and corporate advisory firm headquartered in Bangkok.  

“The two new prime ministers may want to solve both land and maritime disputes,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, an independent scholar on security and foreign affairs, told BenarNews. 

The two leaders could look to share resources in the gulf, possibly by creating a Joint Authority for exploration and exploitation such as the one agreed to by Thailand and Malaysia in 1979, said Panitan, who once served as a security advisor to former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

Former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, center, walks in front of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh Aug. 21, 2023. (AP)

Hun Manet took over leadership of Cambodia when his father, Hun Sen – who built a decades-long reputation for corruption and repression – stepped down in August last year. 

Last week, ahead of Hun Manet’s visit, three exiled Cambodian activists were arrested by Thai immigration authorities for threatening to protest his arrival.

They included Kong Raiya, who was jailed twice for his outspoken criticism of the Cambodian government; Lim Sokha, a senior member of the banned opposition Candlelight party; and opposition activist Phan Phana, who was arrested with his wife and two children, aged two and four.

The three activists had recently fled to Thailand to seek asylum and had been granted refugee status, Phan Phana told Radio Free Asia.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.