A friendlier neighbor
The Kingdom of Cambodia has not been a stranger to us. We have had commercial and political relationships for centuries. Filipino musicians played in the royal court two centuries ago.
The distinct architecture of the Angkor Wat complex underscores the specific civilization built by the Khmers. Ancient Khmers found themselves at war with Siam (now Thailand). Cambodia’s second most important city is named Siem Reap, which translates roughly to “where Siam was defeated.” In the plain where the city stands, not far from where the Angkor Wat lay concealed in jungle growth, the Khmer army vanquished a large force sent by the King of Siam.
No one really knows why Angkor Wat, a city with magnificent temples constructed over generations, was abandoned to the jungle centuries ago. The most supported theory was that the place suffered from a severe drought, forcing its population to move away.
Over recent history, however, colonialism forced our paths to diverge. We fell under Spanish and then American rule. Cambodia, in the 19th century, felt threatened by Siam to the west and the powerful kingdom of Vietnam to the east. The Khmer king sought protection from the French. The kingdom was, thereafter, reduced to a colony of the French empire.
The late 20th century proved a bloody episode for the Khmers. Their country was drawn into the vicious Vietnam War. A local communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, challenged the American-sponsored Lon Nol regime and gained support from the Cambodian countryside.
After taking power, the Khmer Rouge, in a crusade to cleanse its society, ended up committing the most unspeakable genocide against its own people. Over a quarter of the population was slaughtered by the dogmatic Maoist cadres.
The Khmer Rouge might have slaughtered the whole population had Vietnam, by now consolidated after America withdrew, not intervened militarily.
Vietnamese forces, in the early 1980s, crushed the Khmer Rouge, threw its leaders into prison and installed a friendlier regime in its place. The present political leadership in Phnom Penh carries the legacy of that intervention.
We renewed our diplomatic relationship with Phnom Penh after Cambodia, putting the horrors of the Khmer Rouge behind it, decided to join Asean. Our bilateral relationship remained subdued, however, until a few months ago. The Phnom Penh government remains the most pro-Beijing among the Asean countries. This was because the country was extremely dependent on economic assistance, especially in infrastructure development, on Beijing.
Many of us will recall that incident when Cambodia hosted the Asean summit a few years ago. The host country adamantly refused to include wording about the South China Sea dispute in the final communiqué. Then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III awkwardly tried to question the Cambodian leader as he was presenting the communiqué. That was likely the lowest point in our bilateral relationship.
Much has changed since that pitiful episode. When President Duterte came to Cambodia earlier this month, he was originally supposed to be on a working visit. Phnom Penh elevated this into a state visit. This is why the itinerary included a call on the Khmer king.
The Cambodians probably saw in the Filipino President a reincarnation of their former king Norodom Sihanouk, father of the present king. The former king, like Mr. Duterte, was a raconteur of major proportions. He was eloquent in both French and Khmer and often spoke for hours on any random topic. Through his colorful speeches, Sihanouk managed to hold his people together through the severe tests of civil war, the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule and the transition to a more modern state managed by forward-looking leaders.
President Duterte returned the warm hospitality with graciousness. He brought Sen. Manny Pacquiao with his entourage upon learning that the Khmer king was a fan of the Filipino fighter. Small gestures like this bring warmth to diplomacy.
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