Malaysia-Singapore Ties– Good But New Challenges Ahead

February 28, 2018

Malaysia-Singapore Ties– Good But New Challenges Ahead

by David Han, RSIS

The governments under Lee and Najib have the same commitment to foreign policy based on pragmatism and international norms. These shared diplomatic principles bode well for the future of Singapore–Malaysia relations. But it would be simplistic to view Singapore–Malaysia ties as existing without any challenges.–David Han

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The eighth Singapore–Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat held in Singapore from 14 to 15 January 2018 witnessed a milestone in bilateral ties. Leaders of both countries signed an agreement to build a rapid transit system linking Johor Bahru and Singapore, and officially launched the Marina One and Duo joint developments. But new challenges threaten to test relations between the two neighbours.

Leaders envisage that the rapid transit system’s rail services will ease congestion on the Johor–Singapore Causeway and enhance cross-border economic cooperation. Marina One and Duo, located on prime Singapore real estate in the Marina Bay financial centre and Bugis respectively, seek to tap into property and commercial markets.

Symbolically, the projects underscore the interdependence between Singapore and Malaysia. They are the results of a nearly decade-long effort by both governments to put aside their previous acrimony and find viable solutions to ongoing bilateral spats.

Of course, the currently healthy state of bilateral ties is not entirely dependent upon these two deals. The more ambitious Iskandar Malaysia development project, which aims to transform Southern Johor into a thriving economic zone, is another key motivator for both countries to maintain strong ties. Neither side wants bilateral contentions to disrupt the lucrative benefits of Iskandar.

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These developments mark a clear shift away from the strained relations that prevailed during the Mahathir era. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak summed it up aptly when he remarked that the two countries should cease engaging in ‘confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric’. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes the transit agreement’s legally binding nature will connect succeeding generations of leaders.

For a time, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy cast a spotlight on matters of transparency and accountability in joint collaborations such as the Kuala Lumpur–Singapore High-Speed Rail. But Singapore authorities took firm action against financial institutions implicated in the scandal, including several banks. Thanks to Singapore’s actions to preserve the integrity of bilateral cooperation, 1MBD did not sour ties between the two countries.

The governments under Lee and Najib have the same commitment to foreign policy based on pragmatism and international norms. These shared diplomatic principles bode well for the future of Singapore–Malaysia relations. But it would be simplistic to view Singapore–Malaysia ties as existing without any challenges.

A case in point is the growing Johor–Kuala Lumpur rivalry. Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Ismail has been openly critical about several major political, social and economic issues in Malaysia. He is not alone: other Sultans in Malaysia have been voicing similar concerns over mounting domestic problems in recent years. The outspokenness of Malaysia’s monarchs indicates a rare deviation from their largely symbolic role, in which they rarely engage directly in political affairs.

Observers have interpreted this deviation as an attempt by the monarchs to gradually regain their former authority and influence, which were curtailed by the 1993 constitutional amendment that took away their veto powers and restricted their legal immunity. The Johor Sultan’s call for this amendment to be rescinded could be a flexing of political muscle.

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Singapore relations.  Before the rapid transit system agreement was signed, he was critical of the link’s original curved design (though he supported the overall project). The Sultan remarked that the design would not only be costly and impractical, but also mar the skyline of Johor Bahru. The bridge was consequently redesigned to be straight. The Sultan also called for greater involvement by the Johor state government in the project.

Cross-border issues have been and will increasingly be an unavoidable part of bilateral ties. Some of these issues centre on particularly close people-to-people traffic between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Tensions are likely to arise from sources such as race relations, labour standards and transnational crime.


Meanwhile, Malaysia will hold its 14th general election in the middle of 2018. The Najib government has risen above its political quagmire and is likely to win the upcoming election. Some have speculated that if the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan seizes power, its leader and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad might unravel bilateral ties. But Pakatan Harapan is a fragile group plagued with its own problems. Its chances of victory are very slim.

On the other side of the causeway, a new Singapore Prime Minister could be in office after the election due in 2021. But Prime Minister Lee has expressed that more time is needed to prepare his successor and the fourth-generation leadership. These developments would mean leadership continuity in both Malaysia and Singapore, which would ensure that bilateral ties remain at the healthy status quo — at least in the short term.

David Han is a Senior Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


The Guardian view on Donald Trump: bullies never respect sycophants

December 4, 2017

Stop the state visit. Britain should not allow the US President’s racism to be dressed up in pageantry
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In Asia, only Duterte of the Philippines can give Trump the Obama Treatment he deserves. Theresa May is too polite and decent. This Guardian opinion reflects of the elegance and sophistication of British journalism. 


All relationships have boundaries. Those between nations can be particularly fraught, freighted with ties forged in history and culture. In diplomacy the manners, customs and morals of others need to be acknowledged and respected. But humanity begins with acts, not just with thoughts. The question is how to deal with a man like Donald Trump, a taunting braggart with a weakness for flattery? The stakes are high: when nations fall out, people get hurt. By using social media as a flame-thrower, Mr Trump uses words as weapons. He does not care who gets burned.

In retweeting anti-Muslim video clips promoted by a leader of a far-right fringe group in Britain and then rounding on the prime minister for reproaching him, Mr Trump proves again that he panders to bigots and is no friend of this country. This is an important – and dangerous – moment for Britain as it launches itself into the choppy waters of Brexit. The vain hope of politicians who pushed for this nation’s exit from the European Union was that we could hitch ourselves to the United States.

True, the US is Britain’s most important partner on the global stage. As nations we have a sense of shared values and a long history together. Both have worked to uphold the international rules-based system. After the end of the cold war it was a partnership, along with others, that guaranteed a short period of relative peace. What was not taken sufficiently into account was that this was not only a physical equilibrium but also a moral one.

Mr Trump has few morals. He is a thuggish narcissist who is no respecter of Britain’s national security and well being. After the London Bridge attack in June, he went after the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, for urging, quite reasonably, calm. He attacked Scotland Yard, in September, for not being “proactive” after a terrorist bomb failed to detonate in London. Then, as now, Theresa May rebuked the US president. It was the right thing to do. The prime minister should go further and withdraw the invitation for a state visit. Bullies never respect sycophants. Britain should not allow Mr Trump’s racism to be dressed up in pageantry. Mr Trump’s strategy is to stoke a climate of paranoia, both at home and abroad. He seeks advantage in the politics of division and hate. He operates by instinct rather than sober analysis.

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Maggie–Reagan partnership was based on mutual respect and admiration. Trump tried to bully May but got strong rebuke from the  Prime Minister with the backing of the proud British people and the media.

The truth is that Mr Trump has no respect for the basic rights that are the foundation of democracy. Nor does he care for the decency necessary to sustain citizenship. Democracy cannot survive without letting reasonable debate bring the truth to light. Instead Mr Trump appears to have nothing but contempt for our intelligence. For the US president the show is all about one man. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, looks set to be replaced by a cheerleader for Trumpism. Mr Tillerson’s error was to realise what everyone suspects: his boss was, in his own reported words, a “moron”.

As a former British Prime Minister wisely noted, “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”. Britain must have a relationship with the United States, just as we have relationships with unsavoury regimes which are tempered by the understanding that we do not share their scruples. Our own foolishness means that we are no longer useful as a bridge to Europe.

The longer Mr Trump is in office, the more America’s folkways will become unfamiliar to Britain. Like all relationships, Britain and America’s will experience rocky times. We are living through one of them. With Mr Trump in the White House the US has become flighty when it comes to “special” relationships, heaping praise on America’s adversaries and downgrading ties with allies. To be credible our bond needs to be grounded in self-respect. Speaking the truth may be difficult, but that is what friends are for.

Cambodia-North Korea relations are cool at best

July 10, 2017

Cambodia-North Korea relations are cool at best

By Michele

With its white walls shimmering under the tropical sun and its yellow roof pointing towards the sky, the Angkor Panorama Museum (pic below) could be an awkward shopping mall stranded on the outskirts of Siem Reap, the provincial city on Tonle Sap, 320 km from the capital Phnom Penh. Instead, it is a brick-and-mortar testament to the quiet friendship between Cambodia and North Korea.

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The complex was built by the Mansudae Art Studio – a North Korean art group which describes itself as “probably the largest art studio in the world” – at an estimated US$24 million, although the price tag is not clear. As the official line goes, it is a space commemorating the fasts of the ancient Angkor civilization, featuring a 123 meter-long, 13-meter-high painting depicting life eight centuries ago. There are as many as 45,000 characters in it, which is one reason why leaflets handed out at the entrance claim that “the panorama is, absolutely, a masterpiece that will be remembered forever.”

The imposing building is a telling sign of the special relationship that once existed between the two countries, whose roots hark back to the 1960s, when Norodom Sihanouk, then Cambodia’s King, met Kim Il-sung, the late, Great Leader of North Korea. A friendship began to develop, growing stronger as Cambodia descended into the chaos of war and revolution.

When Sihanouk went into exile, the North Korean authorities remained close to him and even built him a 60-room palace close to Pyongyang – something the king never forgot. In his autobiography Sihanouk describes Kim Il-sung as “my surest and most sincere friend and the most steadfast in my support. Even more than a friend: a true brother and my only ‘true relative’ after the death of my mother.” In a 1985 interview with the New York Times he was already referring to the Korean leader as “more than a friend, more than a brother.”

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The Angkor Panorama Museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which was opened to the public back in December 2015, transports visitors back in time with its ‘Panoramic Hall.’ Funded by North Korea, it may well be one of the biggest overseas projects the country has ever taken on.

The ‘Panoramic Hall’ features a mural that is 120 metres long and 13 metres high, offering a 360 degree experience of the Angkorian period, which began in 802 through to 1431.

Although Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and the Cambodian monarchy is now little more than a ceremonial institution, both sides still make an effort to show they get along fine. In early May, the North Korean Ambassador told Khmer Times that the country he represents is seeking Phnom Penh’s help in spearheading its cause with other members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Cambodia have good relations and a history of supporting each other,” he told reporters. “I am confident that Cambodia, as a friend, really understands the tensions on the Korean peninsula and would express solidarity through ASEAN towards our just cause to help find a solution diplomatically to maintain stability and peace in our country.”

Only days later Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a former Pime Minister, said he would soon pay a visit to the Hermit Kingdom to seek to ease tensions on the peninsula.

But being close to North Korea can easily turn embarrassing. The country has kidnapped foreigners, organized terrorist attacks and printed fake currency. The most recent scandal involved Otto Warm bier, an American student arrested last year for stealing a propaganda poster and condemned to 15 years of hard labor. Warmbier had been detained for a year and half when he was sent home in a coma. He died shortly after, without any explanation from the authorities in Pyongyang.

North Korean shenanigans have hit close to the Cambodian authorities, too. In 1996, Yoshimi Tanaka, a member of the Japanese Red Army who had hijacked a plane in 1970, was arrested while trying to cross from Cambodia into Vietnam. He had reportedly been helped by the North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh, which is housed in a villa next to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own mansion.

Six years later the ties between the two countries were again under scrutiny, as the North Korean vessel So San was caught carrying 15 Scud missiles destined to Yemen. The freighter was registered in Cambodia under the now-defunct Cambodian Shipping Corporation (CSC), a flag of convenience system set up in the 1990s to raise funds. Such schemes, which plenty of countries have deployed, allow a vessel to be registered in a foreign nation for a fee and have been extensively blamed for hiding all sorts of dirty secrets. Among CSC’s managers were Cambodian political figures as well as a North Korean diplomat.

Cooling bilateral relations further is the simple fact that, while Phnom Penh may not want to waste its connections with Pyongyang, Cambodia is not going to let North Korea get in the way of its new interests. Leaked US cables, for example, show Cambodian authorities have actively cooperated in handling North Korean defectors who seek refuge abroad – something which the Hermit Kingdom sees as a “crime of treachery against the nation.”

A conversation dating from 2006 quotes the Prime Minister’s adviser Om Yentieng as dismissing concerns that a public exposure of Phnom Penh’s dealings with the United States in managing refugees would harm bilateral relations with North Korea. Somewhat paradoxically, however, he worried that such occurrence might put the security of Mr. Hun Sen in jeopardy.

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“He did register some concern over the PM’s safety due to the proximity of the North Korean Embassy to the PM’s residence – should USG-RGC cooperation on North Korean refugees become public knowledge,” the cable reads.

These days, what remains of the old friendship are places like the Angkor museum – which upon closer inspection looks just like another way of making money. Only one third of the space in the building provides information on the temples, mostly in the form of pictures. The rest is a flea market stuffed with paintings and memorabilia. That almost everything there is on sale — at prices ranging from US$5 to over US$1000 – is a sign of how desperate sanction-laden North Korea is for hard currency.

Restaurants are also helping the regime make ends meet. Pyongyang, right in the middle of the capital, is one of four eateries set up in Cambodia by the North Koreans. Here professionally trained and smartly outfitted waitresses smile at customers, carrying dishes of dumplings in broth, fish and expensive liquors. All is done in Korean traditional costumes. About mid-dinner the lights go off for a show. The waitresses, who no doubt are selected for their beauty as well as their loyalty to the regime, dash to the stage and start singing and dancing. One swirls around with a jar balanced on her head. Minutes later, another is playing tunes on a saxophone.

Customers have a good time. They stare. They toast. They try to snap pictures, which is forbidden. But especially they pay – certainly quite a bit of money passes through this restaurant, which during the weekend is filled to the brim with both locals and tourists. The golden days may be behind the two countries but decades after King Sihanouk and North Korea former Great Leader met, the friendship they formed keeps on bearing fruits for the Hermit Kingdom.


Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50

June 21, 2017

Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50

by  Vannarith Chheang, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung  of Vietnam (photo: Duc Tam/ VNA)

2017 marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. Both countries have organised a series of events to commemorate their time-honoured traditional friendship that is bound by strategic convergence, common vision and shared interests.

Over the past fifty years, the relationship ebbed and flowed with changing geopolitics and domestic politics in both countries before settling since 1979. Yet anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia — mainly driven by domestic politics — has constrained both countries from deepening their strategic partnership.

Cambodia’s opposition party tends to use ‘Vietnam threat’ rhetoric to gain popular support. In an attempt to delegitimise the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of the upcoming elections, former President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has posted a series of short video clips explaining the roots of the CPP and its connections with the communist party of Vietnam. But Cambodian voters are increasingly concerned about their livelihood, social justice, good governance, human rights and environmental protection much more than the Vietnam factor.

There is political cost attached to strengthening bilateral relations with Hanoi, including potentially losing votes to the opposition. Despite this, the long-ruling CPP remains committed to maintaining and enhancing the Vietnam relationship for the sake of national and regional peace and development.

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A new bridge is now linking Vietnam and Cambodia after being inaugurated on April 24, 2017 by Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Cambodian counterpart Samdech Hun Sen. The Long Binh-Chrey Thom Bridge is built over the Binh Di River and connects the provinces of An Giang in South Vietnam with Cal Dal in Cambodia. It is 442 metres long and 13 metres wide and is designed to withstand speeds of 80km/h and allow cars to cross at a speed of 80 km/h.

It is clear that Cambodia is unable to enjoy peace and development without having good and stable relations with its immediate neighbours. Both countries understand that without sticking together under the ASEAN umbrella, their regional role and leverage will be weakened. As a result, Cambodia and Vietnam’s foreign policies have both focused on regional integration and community-building.

Cambodia and Vietnam also share the concern that rivalry between major powers is threatening regional peace and stability. Learning from their Cold War experience, they must stay united to survive and thrive.

In early 2017, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Cambodia three times, including to attend the ground-breaking opening ceremony of Chrey Thom–Long Binh Bridge (connecting Cambodia and Vietnam), pay an official state visit and attend the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is planning to visit Vietnam later this month to commemorate 40th anniversary of his struggle against the Khmer Rouge regime. Such frequent high-level bilateral talks significantly contribute to nurturing political and personal trust, which are the foundations of the relationship.

Early in 2017 at the 4th Meeting on Cooperation and Development among the Border Provinces, both countries’ deputy prime ministers underscored the need to develop the Vietnam–Cambodia border area. They agreed to modernise infrastructure facilities, promote trade, investment, services and tourism and build border economic zones and markets.

Vietnam is now the fifth largest investor in Cambodia after China, South Korea, the European Union and Malaysia — it has invested in 183 projects with an aggregate value of US$2.86 billion. The investment projects target rubber plantations, telecommunications and banking. Vietnam is also Cambodia’s third largest trading partner with about US$3 billion over the last few years. They aim to achieve a US$5 billion trade volume in coming years. The planned construction of 116 warehouses at strategic border crossings between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — expected to be completed by 2035 — will improve trade flow between the two countries.

People-to-people connectivity between Vietnam and Cambodia has been markedly strengthened over the years. There are currently more than 400 Cambodian students pursuing their higher education at various universities and institutions in Vietnam. And Vietnamese are the largest group of tourists to Cambodia, accounting for 19 per cent of all visitors.

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The  Neak Loeung Bridge located in the Prey Veng Province is 2,220 metres long, 13 metres wide and 37.5 metres above the water level. It will have two wide lanes for traffic. When completed it will facilitate trade between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Looking ahead to the next fifty years, Cambodia–Vietnam relations will evolve in tandem with the speed of ASEAN community building. ASEAN provides institutional and diplomatic leverage for its member states to strategically manoeuvre and collectively hedge against major powers to minimise risks while maximising interests where possible. Collectively advocating for a rules-based regional order will help smaller countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to protect their legitimate interests.

To reduce ‘Vietnam threat’ perceptions in Cambodia, both countries need to promote engagement at all levels. Right now there is a lack of academic or intellectual dialogue between the two countries. Exchange programs among students, youth leaders, future leaders and community leaders need to be further promoted. Political parties in Cambodia should not use Vietnam for their own political gains — such a strategy is obsolete and does not fit into the evolving dynamics of ASEAN regionalism.

Differences over the management of the Mekong River and the South China Sea dispute need to be resolved the ASEAN way — through consultation and consensus. Cambodia and Vietnam might have different views on these complex issues, but they need to respect each other’s national interest and position without harming bilateral friendship and ASEAN unity.

Vannarith Chheang is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore

Mutual Respect– The Foundation for Better Cambodia-Thailand Relations

June 15, 2017

Mutual Respect–The Foundation for Better Cambodia-Thailand Relations

by Kimkong Heng

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The relations between Cambodia and Thailand can be appropriately labelled as a love-hate relationship, given the long history of bilateral ties between the two neighboring countries. However, racial hatred, arguably, seems to have prevailed among many, if not most, of the people of both countries, at least during the three-year Cambodian-Thai border dispute that started in July 2008 over the territory surrounding the 11th century Preah Vihear Temple (known as Phra Viharn in Thailand). The deep hatred and open hostility should come as no surprise if one examines the ancient and modern history of the relations between the two countries.

However, given their current political, economic and diplomatic relations, both countries can enhance their generally troubled relationship through a reciprocal exchange of mutual respect. There are many possibilities ranging from government-to-government initiatives to people-to-people connectivity programs to cultivate and nurture mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance between the people of both nations. Only when a sense of mutual respect is prevalent among Cambodian and Thai people, can harmonious bilateral relations between the two neighbors be maintained and strengthened.

From the Cambodian historical perspective, Thailand was a major threat to Cambodia’s land, although it is less of a threat compared to its Vietnamese counterpart to the present-day Cambodia. Every Cambodian, young and old, knows that Thailand was Cambodia’s traditional enemy and that Cambodia was the victim of devastating Thai (called Siam by most Cambodians) attacks on numerous occasions. There were two infamous invasions of Cambodia by the Siamese. One was the Siamese invasion of Angkor in 1431 and another was the invasion of Longvek, an ancient Cambodian capital (now located in Kampong Chhnang province), in 1593. The collapse of both ancient Khmer cities marked the downward trajectory of the Khmer Empire which was already in decline from the 13th to the 19th centuries, a historical period which saw Cambodia’s vast territory lost to Thailand and Vietnam until Cambodia became a French colony in 1863 under King Norodom’s reign.

Under the French, Cambodia-Thailand relations seemed to have been restored and improved, with a number of treaties signed between Siam and France, on Cambodia’s behalf. Following Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, however, Cambodia-Thailand relations deteriorated when Thailand in 1954 occupied Preah Vihear by force. Cambodia then responded to the Thai invasion by bringing a legal case against Thailand before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1959. The ICJ in 1962 ruled that Cambodia was the rightful owner of Preah Vihear Temple. Relations between both countries could not be worse at that time.

Three decades later, after Cambodia’s UN-sponsored national election in 1993, the two neighbors began to establish good relations with each other. However, their seemingly good relationship was brief and fragile. In 2003, a violent riot broke out after a Thai actress was reported to have awkwardly claimed that Angkor Wat should be returned to Thailand. The incident saw the bilateral relations between the two neighbors descend to the worst possible level, once again. When their bilateral ties later seemed to normalize and improve, both governments again broke off their diplomatic relations. This was a result of Thai troops being stationed in a disputed area of land adjacent to the Preah Vihear Temple after the temple was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008. Thailand’s troop deployment invited Cambodia to do the same, which led to a series of fierce border clashes and skirmishes between 2008 and 2011, despite several talks and meetings between the two governments.

As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange.

With ASEAN mediation (although no effective action was taken), domestic political developments in both countries, and the ICJ Judgment on Cambodia’s request for a reinterpretation of the 1962 judgment in November 2013, the Cambodian-Thai border conflict was resolved, and bilateral relations improved. Two years later Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-ocha, signed a series of agreements aimed at cementing bilateral ties between both countries. They agreed to develop border facilities, manage migrant labor, and triple their current trade volume to USD 15 billion by 2020.

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Thailand must respect Cambodia’s Sovereignty over Preah Vihear Temple

Nevertheless, a resurgence of nationalism in both countries, often manipulated by politicians, is likely to impact their bilateral relations. As Kimly Ngoun has noted, many issues such as the historical legacy of hostility and mistrust, different constructions of history by Cambodian and Thai elites, and political propaganda about national territory and sovereignty, remain to be addressed, otherwise future conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is inevitable.

All things considered, genuine and mutual respect between the people of both nations should be cultivated and nurtured. In addition to efforts at the institutional and governmental levels to salvage the troubled relationship between the two countries, individuals have crucial roles to play. As argued in another article, Cambodian youth have played a pivotal role in shaping Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam. And Thailand should not be an exception. Cambodian people, particularly the younger generation, therefore, should not dwell on their dark history; instead, they should use lessons from history to help them make informed and impartial judgments when dealing with issues concerning Thailand and its people. They should, moreover, focus on developing themselves by engaging in different forms of personal and professional development. Only when each and every Cambodian is more educated, pragmatic, open-minded, and culturally competent, will Cambodia be more competitive and well-received in its neighboring countries’ eyes and on the international stage.

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Thus, everyone, both Cambodians and Thais, have a vital role to play in improving and fostering good relations between the two old rivals. In this regard, Cambodian people must learn to embrace the culture, values, and aspirations of their Thai counterparts, although those Thai cultural aspects, as claimed by Cambodians, originally derived from Khmer culture. This cultural acceptance must be a collective effort requiring mutual respect. The Thai side must also pursue the same initiative — respecting Cambodian culture, values, and aspirations despite having very similar cultural identity and practices.

There are a myriad of options and actions which can be taken to promote this free and frank exchange of mutual respect. One option both governments have pursued but will still requires their serious attention is to improve border facilities and security to enhance trade, tourism, and mobility. This of course implies the demarcation of both land and maritime borders. With more development projects geared towards areas along the Cambodian-Thai border, chances are high for citizens of both countries to interact economically, culturally, and socially, leading to better mutual understanding and trust.

New initiatives for cultural and educational exchanges or projects involving youth engagement and interactions, such as study exchange programs and youth group camping, should be further encouraged and implemented. Moreover, initiatives to enhance business and investment and to improve deep institutional ties and physical infrastructure links between Cambodia and Thailand are essential because, in their absence, people-to-people links would be difficult, if not impossible. The mutual exchange of respect and understanding must therefore be fostered at all levels, although the emphasis should be targeted at the grassroots level by fully engaging individuals and the youth of both countries.

The cultivation of mutual respect among the people of Cambodia and Thailand is clearly a prerequisite for the long-term healthy relationship between the two former enemies. As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange. To instill respect for one another, people of both nationalities must learn to be more outward-looking yet less self-important in their perceptions of their neighboring counterparts. It is probably wise for them to remember an old Khmer saying which goes, “In times of trouble, a good neighbor is better than a faraway relative.” Good neighbors must show one another mutual respect.

*Kimkong Heng is Assistant Dean at the School of Graduate Studies and a researcher with Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations in the University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


Cambodia-Vietnam Relations: Role of Cambodian Youth

Cambodia-Vietnam Relations: Role of Cambodian Youth

by Kimkong Heng & Sovinda Po

Cambodia youth have crucial roles to play in improving and strengthening Cambodia-Vietnam relations, write Kimkong Heng & Sovinda Po.

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Cambodia has long been the victim of her rising neighbuors, Thailand and Vietnam. In 1863, to ensure that Cambodia could still remain united as a single country and not to be swallowed by her two stronger neighbours, King Norodom decided to invite France to make Cambodia its protectorate. A century later, with the intention to dominate and turn Indochina into a communist bloc under its control, Vietnam invaded Cambodia on grounds of liberating the latter from the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Because of increasing diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community, however, Vietnam was forced to withdraw its troops from Cambodia in 1989. Chronic anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodians, or so-called ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, has remained ever since.

One of the great challenges in Cambodia-Vietnam bilateral relations is the perception of many Cambodian people, who even long before the 1979 Vietnamese invasion, saw Vietnam as a long-term threat to Cambodia’s land. As noted in Phnom Penh Post, “quite clearly, forms of Cambodian racism towards Vietnam and the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia did not develop in a historical vacuum but rather developed in response to the expansionist tendencies of the pre-colonial imperial state”. Vietnam encroached Prey Nokor, including Kampuchea Krom (formerly a Cambodian territory) and institutionalised it as its own city, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Such stories and other similar narratives about Vietnam’s land grabbing ideology were taught in Cambodian schools and passed down from one generation to another. Moreover, the contemporary instances of the ongoing border dispute between Cambodia and Vietnam has also reinforced such perceptions. One Cambodian scholar posits that the border dispute, compounded by anti-Vietnam nationalism, has gained momentum since the national election in 2013 and the trend is not likely to fade away any time soon.

Cambodia’s efforts to improve the Cambodia-Vietnam Relations

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) under Hun Sen’s leadership has been very active in normalising and cementing Cambodian ties with Vietnam. In June 2015 during the visit of Le Hong Anh, a member of the politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Hun Sen told the Vietnamese counterpart to remain calm so that peace and stability could be maintained along the border. At the same year, Hun Sen also asked the UN for original Cambodian maps to verify the ongoing border demarcation process between Cambodia and Vietnam.

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Although this attempt has not yielded a fruitful result, because both parties have not reached common agreement, the general public in Cambodia tended to view it as a major effort to settle the border dispute. Moreover, several dimensions of bilateral cooperation between the two countries have been initiated and increased. There is much cooperation in terms of trade, investments, military-to-military ties, and government-to-government relations, but one of the most important dimensions in  Cambodian-Vietnamese relations which seems to receive less attention is people-to-people connectivity.

Cambodian youth, the backbone of the Cambodian nation, have vital roles to play to improve and strengthen relations between the two countries.

The Role of Cambodian Youth 

Despite many initiatives such as youth exchange programs both governments have introduced to salvage the troubled relationship between the two countries, youth of both nations still have crucial roles to play.

First, Cambodian youth must learn and understand their own history. Only after they have a profound insight into their own history will they be able to make sound judgment and rational decisions when it comes to issues related to Cambodia-Vietnam relations. As Chheang Vannarith notes, a clear understanding of history can help promote reconciliation between former enemy countries because history offers light for future directions.

Second, Cambodian youth must learn to develop open-minded and positive mindsets. Instead of sticking to a negative anti-Vietnamese worldview, they should learn to ‘jettison’ their Vietnam syndrome by being more open and realistic in their thinking and attitudes. Although Cambodia and Vietnam were two former foes, both nations are now ASEAN members. Thus, establishing more and improved people-to-people connectivity between the two neighbouring countries is vitally important; however, any connectivity at a micro- level will not flourish unless Cambodian youth can start learning to view their Vietnamese counterparts as friends, not traditional enemies.

Third, Cambodian youth must also learn to think and act as global citizens. Living in a global society, in particular within ASEAN, younger Cambodian generations must be able to live harmoniously and peacefully with other nationalities, especially the Vietnamese. Although Vietnam is generally not well-received among Cambodians, young and old, the country is vital to Cambodia’s national security because of its geopolitical proximity to Cambodia. In this respect, the ability to refrain from despising anything with the name ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Vietnamese’ attached to it is absolutely crucial for Cambodian young people if they wish to be seen as global citizens.

Finally, it is a must for Cambodian youth to engage in all forms of knowledge and skills development. One problem Cambodia is facing and will continue to face in the foreseeable future is the lack of a culture of reading. Therefore, as Cambodia aims to become an upper-middle income country by 2030 and a high income country by 2050 (Cambodia’s National Strategic Development Plan 2014-2018), the development of a knowledge-based Cambodian society is of absolute necessity.

In this regard, Cambodian youth who are the future for Cambodia have a pivotal role to play. They can either be future architects of the Cambodian development pathway, including Cambodia’s foreign policy, or prospective captains of the Cambodian ship. Most importantly, they can be Cambodian ambassadors in the making who are responsible for raising the profile of Cambodia in the region and the international stage. They have, in particular, active and fundamental roles to play in Cambodia’s endeavours to enhance its relations with Vietnam. All of these roles require knowledgeable, open-minded, pragmatic and outward-looking Cambodians.

Kimkong Heng is an Assistant Dean for the School of Graduate Studies, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is also a lead editorial assistant of UC Occasional Paper Series. He earned his MA in TESOL from the University of Canberra (Australia) with High Distinction. His areas of interest include language teaching methodology, teacher education, teacher research capacity building, and now foreign policy. Heng is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, The University of Cambodia under supervision of Prof. (Dr) Din Merican.

Sovinda Po is a Master student in International Relations at School of Advanced International and Areas Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai, China. His research interests include Cambodia’s foreign policy, China’s foreign policy, China and Cambodia relations, and China and ASEAN relations. His articles appear on the Diplomat, East Asia Forum, IPP Review, and Australian Institute of International Affairs.