VOA Khmer will sponsor a roundtable discussion on the Mekong river management, organized and moderated by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. The event is open to the public and will take place tomorrow, October 18, 2011 at Phnom Penh’s Sunway Hotel. Participants are expected to be from foreign diplomatic missions, government institutions, foreign aid organizations, local NGOs, and local schools and research institutions. Click here for more details.
Soeung Sophat, Washington
Optimism about a peaceful settlement along the Thai-Cambodia border after Pheu Thai’s landslide victory is not shared by everyone.
The Cambodian government was quick to welcome the Party’s election victory and is confident the long-running dispute can now be settled more peacefully in a “new era”. The goodwill was returned by Yingluck Shinawatra, the head of the victorious party and sister to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Yingluck said her new government would make restoring relations with neighboring countries a “priority.”
This restoration process may be easier said than done. The border dispute is driven by nationalism and remains entangled in Thai domestic politics. Powerful actors will resist any “U-turn” in policy toward Cambodia. One of these is the Thai military, who, according to John Ciorciari, “will likely oppose a precipitous shift in policy from Bangkok.” Nationalist groups, particularly the People’s Alliance for Democracy, are determined to continue the opposition to any thawed relations with Phnom Penh, as they have done in the past.
Cambodia’s main opposition party cautiously welcomed the more amicable climate, saying that that international involvement remains crucial to solving the border dispute. Analysts agree, saying that Indonesia, as current head of Asean, should be keen on seizing momentum and getting the two countries to return to negotiations.
There is no question that the dispute has been internationalized, with both countries awaiting another ruling from the International Court of Justice on July 18. But as Cambodians are celebrating the third anniversary of the Preah Vihear temple’s listing this week, it remains to be seen whether the current peace at the border will hold, for good.
For US policymakers looking to engage more with Asean youth, facilitating educational exchanges seems to be one answer. Cambodia is a case in point.
With the 2015 deadline looming for Asean integration, Cambodian youth say they don’t understand the benefits of an Asean community and are currently incapable of taking advantage of them. This will potentially disadvantage them against neighboring youth. Some groups here in Washington suggested last month that helping close the socio-economic gap between Asean countries would be in the US interest. US-sponsored education and capacity-building programs in Cambodia such as Peace Corps and Fulbright, which is for US citizens, or USAID, a government development agency, provide opportunities for people-to-people interaction, as well as the transfer of skills and knowledge.
However, given the US economic climate, how can those programs be expanded? Potential new groups include American retirees and, particularly, an increasing number of Americans with personal ties to Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Cambodian-Americans who have interests in Cambodian issues say they often have financial constraints and for different reasons cannot go to Cambodia on available programs. Former Fulbright grantee Phally Chroy says the program is highly competitive and difficult for Cambodian-Americans who may not have received a strong education. In addition, Peace Corps volunteers are more likely to be sent to countries with a different culture than to those they have family in.
The exchange increase should also go the other way—that is, training for Cambodians in the US. Existing US exchange programs such as the Fulbright are hugely popular and competitive among Cambodian students, and the activities of the program’s Cambodian alumni are good examples of the social impacts such overseas programs can have. However, besides these US government-sponsored programs for higher education in the US, it is unclear what other opportunities there are for Cambodians through private or other support means. It has also been suggested that such educational exchanges be open for Cambodian high school students. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh already seems to be stepping up its outreach in this area, including the introduction of J visas. But there is still a long way to go before Cambodian students might enjoy the exchange opportunities offered in other Asean countries.
It’s election season, and that’s creating some interesting news out of Cambodia’s political parties as the South China Sea dispute heats up. First of all, the Sam Rainsy Party has put out a statement in support of China. The statement doesn’t mention the US or Philippines, normal democratic friends of the opposition. It does call China a “great friend and ally.” The US backs Vietnam in this dispute. Meanwhile, the CPP, usually a friend of Vietnam, and often a friend to China, has remained mum on the dispute. These statements may be less about the South China Sea and its islands and more about next year’s commune elections and the 2013 general elections.
‘Crossroads Cambodia’ is a news and analysis blog by VOA Khmer’s Sophat Soeung on Cambodia-related regional and international affairs.
Follow me on Twitter: @CrossroadsKH