The Cambodia-Thai Border
It is 4 a.m. as you sit in the back of an overloaded minivan. The air is warm and the odours are thick. The driver has his feet up on the dashboard, fast asleep. Most others are sleeping, too, strewn over each other in a pile of elbows and knees. They seem unconcerned. You tread on a few toes to reach the door and step outside. After standing for what feels like hours, watching dawn break, the driver eventually stirs. Asking him why we cannot cross the border, he simply states it is not open. Whilst taking a long drag on a cigarette, he asks if you play dice. You politely decline the offer.
The Cambodia-Thai border has a habit of sporadically opening and closing. However, the restrictive border policies seem specifically targeted at Cambodians themselves. The Kingdom of Cambodia emerged peacefully into the 1990s from the devastating legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s and the subsequent years of internal conflict. It entered the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999 and has seen economic growth averaging 7% since 1995.
The Border Economy
Cambodia has without a doubt an ancient, enthralling culture and is probably home to some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Yet the modern collective memory of its people is sadly marred with horrific violence. In spite of such trauma, occupation, and war, attempts to modernise the state have been fuelled by huge investment into capital projects. Some of the most lucrative ventures can be found along the region’s long disputed borderlands, aided by a liberal foreign investment regime and hands-off regulation. The casino industry in the border area is particularly booming, with revenues finding already deep pockets. But how many ordinary Cambodians reap the benefits?
In many places the exact boundary between Cambodia and Thailand lies unresolved, possibly plagued by the ghost of imperialism. French Indochina demarcated most border posts between Siam, then Thailand, and Cambodia over a hundred years ago and the legacy is said to hamper border permeability today. Border disputes coinciding with other volatile periods in recent history, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, mean the closure of the Cambodia-Thai land crossing hits Cambodian migrants particularly hard when trying to move west into the more affluent Thai economy. However, access into Cambodia at the town of Poipet is quietly thriving. The reason? The gambling industry.
An Introduction to Poipet
A Cambodian boomtown situated at the Cambodia-Thai border, Poipet was once a much sleepier agricultural area. Characterised by rapid population increases and economic growth, Poipet has recently undergone a facelift. Thanks mainly to the patronage of neighbouring Thais, whose own country unreservedly bans gambling, Poipet's casino resorts, with names like Tropicana and Grand Diamond City, are turning the town into Cambodia's little Las Vegas. Capitalising on the gap in the market left by its strictly governed neighbouring countries, Cambodia supported vast foreign investment to create destinations to game and gamble.
A Lucrative, Yet Disputed Industry
Business is so lucrative that NagaWorld, a leading company based in the capital Phnom Penh, plans to start a private chartered flight service directly from China to fly in wealthy customers. At Poipet, many visitors are players from Bangkok, and as the casinos lie conveniently between each nation's customs offices, there is no hassle nor need to complete full immigration. The wealth generated is immense. But here lies the selective nature of Poipet. Alongside the formation of the Cambodian casinos, the Cambodian government made gambling illegal for its own citizens. The institutions and processes at play reward foreignness and wealth with access, with middle-class Cambodians feeling excluded. The Cambodian government's argument for this policy is to foster economic growth within the country while protecting its citizens from the vices of gambling.
Scammers and Corruption
As borders do, they provide the infrastructure to administer the flow of trade and human movement. However, at Poipet the underbelly of society is enabled to flourish. The effect of the casino industry along the border has been linked to the proliferation of many socio-economic problems in Cambodian society. Scam artists, corruption, and labour brokers, known locally as me kchal, thrive off the poorly regulated environment and lack of institutional framework. The population of Poipet more than doubled between 1998 and 2008 and has thus fostered a turbulent social hierarchy; many of its citizens reside in the far less opulent areas of the town, behind the glitz and glamour of the casinos.
In 2003, riots broke out in Phnom Penh that saw the Thai embassy destroyed and Thai-owned businesses damaged as a result of enduring border disputes. What started as a local article claiming that Thai actress Suvanant Kongying had said Angkor Wat (a Cambodian temple complex) belonged to Thailand, quickly spiralled and caused nationalistic sentiment to bubble to the surface. Old tensions between Cambodia and Thailand were ignited. The $20 million that Bangkok demanded in reparations was paid using funds mostly provided by the casinos operating along the border.
Economic Migration: A Possibility?
Despite these tensions, Cambodians seek opportunities in comparably affluent Thailand to work and send remittances back to their families. The mostly young, male, low-skilled Cambodian migrants are often at the bottom of the pecking order in their new home, though. Firstly, emigrating through recognised and legal channels is costly, complicated and time-consuming ($700 and taking three to six months). So, most of the migrant population use irregular routes ($100 and taking a matter of days). Even though 68% of all Cambodian migrants head to Thailand, where there is the prospect of higher wages working mainly in construction or farming, only an estimated 10% use authorised work permits.
Rolling the Dice
The Cambodia-Thai border area and the town Poipet are fascinating case studies in how government policies on different sides of an international border shape societies, industries, and economic underbellies. It might be a strategy for transition for Cambodia on its way to becoming wealthier. But it might also be cementing a way of life along both sides of the border that does not have a sustainable nor just economic trajectory. In any case, other borderland areas around the world should pay attention to the effects policies had along the Thai-Cambodia frontier.
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