For someone who was born just a week before the Khmer Rouge regime came to power, it was perhaps destined that Sorphorn Ouk would spend his life dedicated to contributing to the bettering of the lives of the Cambodian people. Currently Ambassador of Cambodia to Thailand on his first ambassadorial posting, Ambassador Sorphorn started his career in Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation before being promoted to General-Director of ASEAN, Under-Secretary of State, Deputy Chief of Mission and most recently Ambassador.
After six months in Thailand, His Excellency Sorphorn Ouk has been working tirelessly to strengthen Thai-Cambodian ties. He shared with us his hopes and dreams for the two countries, and his thoughts on developments and collaborations that are underway to achieve those goals.
- You did a Master’s in political science at Ramkhamhaeng University prior to being posted here as Deputy Ambassador. How does it feel to be back in Bangkok again this time?
It definitely feels like coming home! I still have a lot of friends here. Some of them I know from university, while some are directors, directors-general, senators and ministers, so it’s easy for me cooperate and work with them for Thailand and Cambodia.
- Thailand and Cambodia have been neighbours for over 1,000 years, but we’ve only had official diplomatic relations for 70 years. How have relations evolved?
I’d say we are like brothers and sisters and we’ve been good and close neighbours for a long time. We’ve been working together in terms of various mechanisms to improve trade and other relations. We’ve been working together very well. We’re both kingdoms and we have similarities in terms of culture, civilisation, traditions, religion and so on. Luckily, Thailand has never been colonised and has had no civil wars. As I mentioned, when the Khmer Rouge defected and joined the government, Cambodia only attained full peace, stability and full-on development over the past 20 years by implementing the win-win policy established by Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The year 2020 will be the 70th anniversary of Thai-Cambodian diplomatic relations and our embassy in Bangkok will organise activities to celebrate lasting and cordial relations.
Actually, we are working together not only diplomatically, but also in in terms of economic, political, trade and investment relations. The Prime Minister of Thailand, Prayut Chan-o-Cha, and the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, have been working together to further promote border trade and people-to-people connectivity. I always tell Cambodian people that we’ve been working hard to help them connect with their families and promote border trade.
As Cambodian Ambassador to Thailand, my priority is to contribute significantly to the enhancement of existing good relations, bringing them to the highest level with mutual respect, trust and understanding, as well as collaborating with 33 other embassies in Bangkok, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the Asian Institution of Technology (AIT) and other parties. I also aim to provide better services and support to employees, businessmen, monks, students and Cambodian living and working in Thailand.
- Trade is of great importance between Thailand and Cambodia. How are we faring?
At present, Thailand sells fuel, petroleum oils, machinery, electric parts, construction materials, consumer products and industrial products to us, while we sell agricultural products such as corn, soybean, maize and cassava, ignition wiring sets, scrap gold and so on to Thailand. In the past, there used to be long queues at the borders, but that is improving as we better organize traffic and improve the roads. It takes around three hours by road from Bangkok to the Cambodian border at Aranyaprathet, and from the border to Siem Reap it takes only three hours. We organized a road trip for the Diplomatic Corps’ Study Visit and their families. They were all very happy with the trip. We would like to promote overland transportation. My embassy also conducted the second and third ones for businesspeople and investors from Bangkok to in October and November, respectively.
- Why do you want to focus on land transportation?
By bus, you can see the view, the activity and the interconnections between people. It’s much more interesting than flying. We have two companies that provide overland bus services – from Thailand and from Cambodia – so it’s very convenient now. We’re trying to promote our border trade by inviting people to come and see us and check out our products – and also get a glimpse into people’s lives and their cultures.
- Thailand and Cambodia share a long border. Can you describe recent developments in terms of boosting border trade between the two countries?
Our prime ministers have recently – in April 2019 – co-presided over the ceremony marking the completion of the Cambodia-Thailand Friendship Bridge (Nan Nong Ian/Steung Bot) with customs offices on both sides and to be completed in 2020. Also, in April, the handover Ceremony of the four Diesel Multiple Units (DMU) or train heads was held. I believe that this bridge and rail link will be good trade routes, gateways or two additional pots of entries between Thailand and Cambodia.
We have 19 border check points including 12 International check points, and we want to add another four International ones. They are Anses-Anma (between Preah Vihear and Ubon Ratchathani), Chupkerki-Saytakou (between Oudor Meanchey and Buriram), Phnom Dey-Baan Khao Din (between Battambang and Sa Kaeo) and lastly Thmor Da-Baan Ta Sen (between Purset and Trat). In 2018, the net value of trade was about US$7.6 billion. We expect that the trade volume will increase very fast once the new check points are completed.
Next year will see the 70th anniversary of Thailand-Cambodia diplomatic relations. There will be joint activities held between the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok and the Thai Royal Embassy in Phnom Penh to raise awareness about our relations in terms of politics, trade and investment.
- What about investment? Are there many Thai investments in Cambodia?
There are more than 1,000 companies from Thailand registered at the Ministry of Commerce of Cambodia that operate in Cambodia – among them BJC Big C Group of Companies, Makro, Siam Cement Group (SCG), Charoen Porkphand Group, CP All Public Co, Ltd which plans to open a 7-Eleven chain in Cambodia soon. Three years ago, Cambodia’s biggest foreign investor was South Korea; today it’s China. However, we’re open for any country to come and invest. Our government plans to open more embassies in the near future as we seek more markets and not simply rely on the markets we have.
For those looking for business opportunities in Cambodia, I would suggest construction, real estate, tourism and agriculture. And I’d suggest finding a local partner, because in Cambodia, if you want to open a business these days, with technology moving at the pace it does, you need to have the right partner – and one that you can trust. One thing you need to have in mind is that, when you do business, you need to make sure everything goes through the banks and lawyers. Everything has to be done by the book to avoid problems. One of the most attractive aspects of investing in Cambodia is that we waive taxes, or provide what we call a “tax holiday – 0%” for the first nine years, in a competitive investment incentive – and we have an inexpensive labour force.
Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) has increased six-fold over the past two decades (1998-2018), from US$3.1 billion to US$24.4 billion. According to the World Bank, our status has changed from a less-developed country to a lower-middle income country in 2015. We set our goal of transforming into an upper-middle income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050. This presents a good investment opportunity.
During the past five years, relations between Thailand and Cambodia have become significantly stronger, and our collaborations are mostly focused on trade, border trade and tourism. By focusing on people, trade, border trade and the economy, I’m positive that we can prosper together. Both parties have to look at the big picture, as in how to perform both individually and jointly within the region, while also maintaining economic stability.
- How are tourism revenues in Cambodia?
We earn around US$4.35 billion, which is not much compared to the income generated by factories, or industry in general – our biggest income sources. Apart from Angkor Wat, which is world-renowned and probably the best-known attraction in Cambodia, we do have much to offer in terms of sightseeing. In Phnom Penh, we have the Royal Palace, the National Museum and many beautiful temples. If it’s beaches you want, you can travel to Preah Sihanouk, Kampot, Koh Rong Kep and Koh Kong. For nature and eco-tourism, we also have Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie and many other sites to explore.
- Can you talk a little about relations between Cambodians and Thais in Thailand?
There are about 1.2 million Cambodian people in Thailand. They are mostly employees, students and monks. As you can see, we’re very busy here at the embassy because we aim to provide good and speedy services for our people. For the past five months I’ve been posted here, every Sunday we’ve been active in terms of interacting with Cambodians in Chonburi, Pattaya, Pathomthani, Nakhon Ratchasima, Samutprakarn, Trat and Koh Chang, helping provide them with legal documentation. Legal documentation in compliance with Thai labour law is also crucial for Cambodians who are seeking employment here in Thailand.
- You are very familiar with Thailand. What do you think are the similarities and differences between Thais and Cambodians?
Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles. I think Cambodia is not much different. When we greet our guests and interact among each other, we also smile a lot and wai, just like the Thais do. We’re both largely Buddhist and our languages are soft, making us gentle spoken with sweet, polite dispositions. Also, the food is very similar, except that Thai food is spicier, sweeter, saltier.
Bangkok is like my second home. I was here for the first time for four years, and now – in this current position – it will be another three or four years. My family and I love the food and the shopping here. Both my children have scholarships and they happily attend schools here. I don’t even feel like I’m living abroad because everything is so familiar and pleasant. I’ve got lots of friends, too, even though, so far, I’ve been very busy with work, including on most weekends. My work has taken me to more than 30 provinces in Thailand so far, connecting with people and supporting them. Sometimes I have to stand for over two hours to have photos taken with children because they want a photo with the Ambassador. It made them happy and it makes me happy, too. I want to devote my life to the people and my country and help create better relations between Thailand and Cambodia.
The Royal Embassy of Cambodia in Bangkok would like to thank the following sponsors for their generous support: CP All Public Company, BJC Big C Group of Companies, Siam Cement Group, Siam Piwat Company, K&K Parawood Co, Ltd, Green Plastwood Co, Ltd, Tri Foundation (Cambodia), Assumption University of Thailand and Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel.