Khmer Times was given the opportunity to have a special interview with H.E. Panyarak Poolthup Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand to the Kingdom of Cambodia for the publication of a Special Edition to mark this auspicious occasion. The following are excerpts in a Q & A format.
What is the level of diplomatic, trade and other forms of relations between the two nations?
At the outset and above all, Thailand and Cambodia are neighbours in the true sense. We share 800 km of land border. Our peoples share similar traditions, culture and religion. By being neighbours, we have a long history in this part of Southeast Asia together. Diplomatic relations were established in 1950, or exactly 70 years ago, making this year a milestone in our relations.
We are currently enjoying the best of bilateral relations due to the commitment of both countries’ leadership to maintain and promote cooperation in all aspects. The political will is always there to resolve any issues that may arise. Both governments are making the people’s well-being the priority and keeping dialogue open at all levels
Last year, before COVID-19, more than 400,000 Thais traveled to Cambodia and more than 900,000 Cambodians traveled to Thailand. Thailand is among the top five countries that invests most in Cambodia according to data from the CDC in 2019.
How has the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic affected these relations?
COVID-19 has thrown the world economy and international travel into disarray. Businesses in Thailand and Cambodia have also been affected, especially those in the hospitality sector. But it has shown the characters of both our countries that we had the courage to make difficult decisions, like border closure, business restrictions, and movement limits, to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
The ultimate aim is to protect people from this health calamity. Despite the unprecedented circumstances, our relations remain intact and will even grow closer and stronger as we understand each other’s plight and try to help in whatever way we can.
The Thai Government and the Thai community in Cambodia have donated in cash and in kind and joined hands with the Cambodian Government in their efforts to combat COVID-19. Thailand has allowed medical patients from Cambodia to seek treatment in Thailand at a time when borders are otherwise closed to contain the spread of the pandemic.
The Cambodian government, in return, has given an amnesty for Thai citizens who have been unable to leave Cambodia due to travel restrictions to remain in Cambodia. The Cambodian government has also provided assistance to Thai nationals who wish to return to Thailand, as well as facilitating entry into Cambodia for Thai businessmen in line with Cambodia’s effective health precautions.
This spirit of solidarity and cooperation in times of hardship truly defines the solid bond upon which our neighbourly relations are built upon.
What is the level of two-way bilateral trade between the two coun-tries for the current year and how has it fared when compared to last year?
The value of bilateral trade between Thailand and Cambodia has been growing Year-over-year. However, due to the setbacks by COVID-19 the value of bilateral trade during Jan-Oct 2020 sums up to $6.074 billion which results in a 21.46% decrease when compared to the same period last year.
Most Thai exports to Cambodia comprise of refined fuels, beverages, livestock, motor cars, parts and accessories, precious stones and jewellery, and chemical products, whereas major products that Cambodia exports to Thailand consist of precious stones and jewellery, fruits and vegetables, metal ore, cable wire and ready-made clothes.
Border trade plays a crucial role in bilateral trade between Thailand and Cambodia during Jan-Sept 2020, the value of border trade stood at $3.976 billion or around 70% of total bilateral trade in the same period ($5.568 billion). I would say that this is an outstanding aspect of relationship between the two countries.
Apart from having each other’s products to serve the market needs, when you think of how border trade is conducted, you will also see people earn a living in the supply chain, especially those along the border and in the local economy. In effect, border trade contributes to poverty reduction and address the inequality gap.
What would be your advice to would be Thai investors to Cambodia as with travellers who might be eager to return or visit Cambodia as soon as flight bans are lifted?
The initial phase of travel ban uncovered an underlying nature of the Cambodian market that investors should be aware of: the dependence on imports. Hence, investors who plan to manufacture in Cambodia will contribute to the overall economic security of the country and thus are likely to be more than welcome by the Cambodian Government. Broadly speaking, there are two ways that Thai businesspeople conduct business in Cambodia: trading and manufacturing. I would suggest that in either case the newcomers might want to pay attention to what I call the 3Es.
The first E is to explore the market. Newcomers should explore if their products or investments meet the market demand and consumer behaviour. They might even have to take time to visit Cambodia for this purpose to obtain first-hand information rather than relying solely on their representatives.
The second E is to expand the knowledge. Newcomers should study related Cambodian laws and regulations to have a thorough understanding of what to expect and be expected in conducting business in Cambodia, as well as to be able to comply with the laws and regulations accordingly.
The third E is to exchange experience. Newcomers will find it useful to get some insights from other businesspeople who came to conduct business in Cambodia before them and this is one of the most important first-hand information that would help them design their business model and become successful in Cambodia.
The Thai Trade Center, one of Team Thailand agencies, and Thailand Business Council in Cambodia (TBCC), an association of Thai businesspeople in Cambodia, are among the most useful and trustworthy sources of information which newcomers could resort to.
During the last few months there have been chartered flights, once or twice per month, organised by tour agencies which are catering to the demands of Thais and Cambodians who need to travel between both countries, including businesspeople. Travellers will have to comply with preventive health measures to make sure that they and those around them are safe from COVID-19 infection. It is a collective responsibility and it is in the interest of everybody.
Has there been any major setback on two-way trade between the two countries and if so, how were they overcome?
The Thai Government believes in the notion that neighbouring countries should seek common grounds and set aside differences in order to allow for economic prosperity and the well-being of people. That is why relevant Thai agencies, both at the national and provincial levels, have forged a close cooperation with their counterparts. Any issues that might hinder two-way trade will be addressed by the two sides without delay. As a consequence, the trade value between Thailand and Cambodia continues to rise in the past decade.
With the arrival of COVID-19 and the urgent need to stop the spread of the pandemic across borders, the flow of goods between the two countries was disrupted for some time during the first few weeks of border closures, but the authorities of the two sides managed to quickly resolve the situation. It was an unprecedented moment, but with close cooperation, we averted a major setback for border trade.
Before the onset of the pandemic, how was the level of two-way exchanges in terms of technical and study visits, education exchanges, cultural exchanges as well as capacity building?
Exchanges of visit were constant, involving government agencies and academic institutions, which result in the sharing of knowledge and expertise in various fields. While physical exchanges were made difficult, if not impossible, at this time, modern communication technology is being used to save the day. Though it cannot totally replace in-person sessions, online classes and training surely provide the students and trainees an opportunity to continue with their learning.
One example is that Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) has organised various online courses for healthcare professionals from ASEAN and BIMSTEC member countries and Timor Leste to share experience on different aspects such as early childhood health promotion and public health measures.
During the first few months when COVID-19 forced countries to close borders, there were cases of essential travels that could not be deferred, such as patients in Cambodia who were in urgent need of treatment in Thailand, the Thai authorities were not reluctant to take a humanitarian view and granted special permission for cross-border travel, given that the patients and their travelling companions adhere to strict health protocols which were put in place by both countries.
Later, when the Thai Government permitted more types of travellers to Thailand, our authorities have been working tirelessly to facilitate other types of essential travels, including Cambodian students who are enrolled to study in Thailand and eligible foreigners who were stranded in Cambodia. Hopefully when the situation is favourable, we will be able to resume physical exchanges of visit similar to the pre-COVID-19 level.
Is a travel bubble between Thailand and Cambodia under consideration or negotiation?
Not at this moment. However, the relevant authorities of the two countries realise the impact of COVID-19 on tourism, which provide significant revenue to the countries and indispensible income to the people, especially the low income earners, so they would look into any possibilities that would effectively address the issue.
In your opinion, what could be the key areas for further enhancing bilateral relationship between the two countries?
I believe any strong and resilient relationship must be built on a solid foundation. The most important underlying contributor that have characterised, and will always define, our bilateral relationship is people connectivity. The more people connect to each other with an open mind, the more they will understand each other better.
Thais and Cambodians have similarities and diversities, and as we are neighbours, it means that we tend to have more interactions with each other than with other countries. By having more interactions, there might be time when some issues unfortunately get blown out of proportion and make us feel uncomfortable with each other. If people try to understand one another and look for ways to address outstanding issues amicably, based on mutual interests, we will certainly be able to maintain the excellent bilateral relationship that currently exist between our two countries, and have a good chance to enhance it further. In the end, it is the people themselves who will benefit from the two countries having excellent bilateral relationship.
How have Thai investments in this country fared thus far and which are the major areas for these investments?
Thai investments in Cambodia are varied and can be distributed into many sectors such as food and agriculture, construction, hospitality, finance, among others. Major corporations have entered the Cambodian market for decades. They have established themselves and become household names to the Cambodian people. Actually, you can see their presence in your daily life from dawn to dusk, ranging from consumer products to different kinds of services. It is also because of the generous and continued support of the Cambodian government that have made Thai investments in this country a success.
The abundance of Cambodian workforce, in quantity and quality, is among the key factors that has allowed Thai companies to build up and grow from strength to strength. It is a win-win relationship as Thai companies, with sufficient and capable workforce, could plan for long-term investments while Cambodian employees would be provided with job security to ensure their well-being.
In terms of labour market, do Thai investments in Cambodia face any problems?
There have been no report of outstanding problems at the moment. I guess that Thai companies operating in Cambodia are happy with their Cambodian workforce. Many companies also have in-house trainings to upskill and reskill their employees, including during this time to prepare for the post-pandemic period.
One thing that could be an edge to the Cambodians who might want to seek employment with Thai companies, though, is the language skill. To be able to communicate in Thai will help in their work, especially when having to coordinate with their co-workers as there usually are both Thais and Cambodians working together in the companies.
So, people who know both Khmer and Thai languages are sometimes sought after by Thai companies.
How much have the closed border gates impacted border trade between the two countries?
There is no denial that the closed border gates have disrupted a vibrant border trade that exists between Thailand and Cambodia. Statistics have shown a drop of around 17% YoY in border trade volume during the first nine months of this year. However, the local authorities from both sides have been in close coordination to minimise the effect of this border closure by allowing the transportation of goods under some restrictions, such as during certain hours of the day and through designated border gates only while the number of transport vehicles and the people who carry out the job are limited.
Any indication of the number of activities which had to be either scaled down or cancelled/postponed because of the pandemic?
It’s rather difficult to pin a number to the question. But I’ve seen some activities cancelled, some scaled down, and some changed the organisation format. If I count only the Embassy’s events related to the 70th Anniversary of the Establishment of Thailand-Cambodia Diplomatic Relations: we were lucky to have organised our concert very early this year, in February. We had to cancel our Film Festival because the cinemas were closed. The Photo Contest went on but we downscaled the awarding ceremony. We managed to organise our Royal Kathina Ceremony, granted by HM the King of Thailand to Cambodia but no high-level representative could travel from Thailand due to quarantine requirements, so I was made the bearer of the Royal Kathina. Many bilateral meetings scheduled for this year, especially between line agencies, had to opt for online platforms to be able to proceed while some high-level meetings that warrant physical presence, including the 11th Meeting of the Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation (JC), have been deferred to next year.