Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

It seems like a mini Korean War is brewing in Cambodia. But unlike the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula, which could end up involving a military clash, the ‘war’ in Cambodia is a kind of culinary conflict.

In 2002, the North Korean government opened a restaurant in Siem Reap near the world famous Angkor Wat Temple. It became a popular destination for tourists who wanted to sample North Korean delicacies, including dishes like Pyongyang-style cold noodles. Aside from the food, the restaurant offers another attraction: musical and dance performances put on by North Korea-born waitresses.

The restaurant proved to be a financially successful venture and led to the establishment of two more restaurants in Cambodia—one in Phnom Penh and another in Siem Reap. It’s estimated that the restaurants are contributing about $100,000 to $300,000 a year to North Korea’s national coffers.

Encouraged by the success of their Cambodian eateries, the North Korea regime expanded their business to other friendly countries like China, Laos, Vietnam and Russia. And despite the global financial crisis in 2008, which forced many tourists to trim down their spending habits, the North Korea-operated restaurants in Cambodia managed to survive, probably because tourists couldn’t resist the cultural appeal of exotic North Korea, a country pretty much isolated from the rest of the world.

So the more serious problem is a reported boycott spearheaded by South Korean tourist operators of the North Korean restaurants in Cambodia. About 120,000 South Koreans visit the restaurants every year, so imagine the lost earnings for Pyongyang if the boycott lasts.

What triggered it? Is it driven by a loyalty to the many South Korean-owned restaurants in Cambodia that have sprouted up in recent years?

According to news reports, the boycott was signaled by the South Korean embassy as a sign of protest against the North Korean provocation over the Cheonan warship sinking last year. The boycott was initially ignored as tourists continued to flock to the North Korean restaurants. But it seems that North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyong Island in November angered many South Korean residents in Cambodia, and as a gesture of retaliation they called for a boycott of the Pyongyang restaurants.

And the shunning seems to be working. The Phnom Penh Post for instance has reported that some of the dance shows of the North Korean waitresses have been cancelled. However, it remains to be seen whether the boycott will permanently hurt the financial viability of the restaurants.

As the boycott continues, it seems inevitable that the situation is bound to turn ugly. South Korean residents who supported the boycott drive have complained that they were attacked by unidentified goons inside their homes.

Will violence escalate in this peculiar war? The tensions could end up driving away tourists who don’t want to be involved in any nasty confrontations. If this happens, the only winners will be the other Asian restaurants who’d probably be happy to accommodate more customers by offering kimchi and other Korean delicacies on their own menus.

Written for The Diplomat

The Red Shirts Are Back!

Thousands of anti-government Red Shirt protesters gathered in central Bangkok last Sunday, proving once more that they’re still a major threat to the ruling party. The police estimated the crowd at 30,000, but rally organizers claimed they mobilized 60,000 in the streets.

It was the biggest Red Shirt rally since last year when the Red Shirts launched provocative rallies and street blockades in Bangkok over an about two-month period, paralyzing the country’s shopping and commercial centres. The protests, which at one point gathered more than 100,000 people, ended after government troops violently dispersed the rallies, resulting in almost 100 deaths. The government subsequently placed the country’s capital and other urban centres under a state of emergency, which included a ban on the holding of political assemblies and rallies.

The Red Shirts’ core members are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but the group has since then become a broad movement calling for substantial reforms in Thai government and society. In particular, they’re demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who they accuse of being an illegitimate and undemocratic leader.

The Sunday rally overwhelmed police and even political experts, who didn’t expect the Red Shirts to still be capable of organizing a massive protest since many of their leaders are still in prison.

Despite the traffic jams it caused, the Red Shirts’ protest rally was welcomed by many Bangkok citizens, and even foreign tourists. The peaceful conduct of the rally could be one of the reasons why many pedestrians clapped during the protest march. Perhaps learning from their mistakes last year, which alienated them from the public, the Red Shirt protesters last Sunday didn’t resort to gangster-like tactics like burning cars, splattering blood on government buildings and destroying shopping malls.

The surprising success of the Red Shirt rally could also be indicative of rising public support for the group’s cause and growing disappointment with the Abhisit government. This is debatable, and the government would be the first to deny that the Red Shirts are gaining more adherents.

But what we can see is the appropriateness of the demands put forward by the Red Shirts last Sunday. Their popular cry was the immediate release of their comrades who are still in jail — reasonable sounding since it reminded the public that the leaders of the pro-government ‘Yellow Shirts’ who ordered the infamous takeover of the Bangkok International Airport in 2008 have yet to be arrested and charged in the courts.

The first month of the New Year isn’t over yet, but the Red Shirts have already gathered tens of thousands of anti-government protesters in the streets. Abhisit’s advisers shouldn’t use the spectre of the reborn Red Shirt movement as another excuse to implement more authoritarian measures. Instead, they should begin to study the prospect of granting the valid demands of the Red Shirts for the sake of political stability and reconciliation.

Written for The Diplomat

Related articles:

South Korean invasion in the Philippines
Thailand’s colored protesters

One Response to “A Korean ‘War’ in Cambodia?”

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