HER Excellency Mrs Eat Sophea has been the ambassador from Thailand’s neighbour to the east for just over a year. In that short time she has already become recognized and respected for her abilities and hard work by Bangkok’s large diplomatic community, Thai government organizations and also the thousands of Cambodian citizens who live in Thailand.
It is her first ambassadorial assignment, which inevitably adds stress to the job. What’s more, the fact that her country shares a border with Thailand means she has a heavier workload than most ambassadors from more distant countries.
Not surprisingly, her schedule is quite full, which is only natural given the two countries’ proximity. “We have many issues that arise because of our common border. In fact we still have the demarcation of the border to be done. Many people cross every day. There are so many Cambodian workers in Thailand, and sometimes they have problems or get in trouble. There are also many cooperative projects between Cambodia and Thailand.
“As ambassador, I must be on standby 24/7. If I want to go out of Thailand, whether on working days or during public holidays, I need to ask permission from headquarters in Phnom Penh. I try to do my best, and persevere to achieve what I must.”
Mrs Eat Sophea was born in the Cambodian capital at a time when the country was edging towards entanglement with the Vietnam War. Second among six siblings, she spent the first seven years of her life in Prey Veng Provice in eastern Cambodia, where her father was posted as chief of the Provincial Cooperative Office. “My family moved to Phnom Penh soon after the country was plunged into civil war, after the 1970 coup that deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk. I experienced firsthand all the drastic changes that befell my country.”
The civil war ravaged the country from 1970-1975, before the regime of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, from 1975-1979, during which over two million people were either killed or died of starvation and disease. From 1979-1989 the socialist People’s Republic of Kampuchea reeled under political and economic sanctions and protracted guerilla wars. Next came the relatively peaceful but still turbulent transition period to the democratic state of Cambodia, from 1989-1993.
“In 1982, I got a scholarship to study in India, where I met the man I would marry four years later. He was my classmate during our three-years of study at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. My husband was already a staff member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Cambodia before going to India. The Indian government gave 15 scholarships to Cambodian students; my husband and I were among the lucky ones. My father, who was an official of the MFA, helped me get the scholarship. The education I received in India was high quality and it helped chart the course of my career,” she said, which is borne out by her excellent English language skills.
“I joined the MFA in 1985 after I returned. There was quite a demand for people who were able to speak and understand English.” She has never regretted the decision to pursue a career in diplomacy, although she admitted that the demands of her work had made it impossible to spend as much time as she’d have liked with her two daughters, now 26 and 21, when they were young.
Head of mission
“I arrived in Thailand on April 9, 2014 and presented my letters of credentials to His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha
Vajiralongkorn on August 14. Prior to this, I had been to Thailand a number of times as part of Cambodian delegations. The first time was in November 2001 as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s delegation.
“The usual term for a Cambodian diplomat is three years. However, my predecessor was recalled after five years, and a few ambassadors have remained in the post for more than two terms; so it really depends on what the government sees as best.
“Before my appointment, I was an under-secretary of state in the area of international cooperation, covering Africa and the Middle East. It was a short stint though. The position I held the longest was as chief of the cabinet of the foreign minister, from 2004 until the later part of 2012. I would describe myself as a jack-of-all-trades. I know a lot of things, but don’t have great depth in any area,” Mrs Eat Sophea said.
“In previous assignments with the MFA I was in contact with many ambassadors and foreign dignitaries. Therefore, I feel at ease in diplomatic circles. But being ambassador in a foreign country is more challenging than working in Cambodia because whatever I say and do is seen as representing my country.
“I arrived in Thailand in an eventful period. On May 7, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed and the military takeover ensued in the same month. It was a memorable experience to see Cambodian people leaving Thailand en masse in June 2014, with huge media coverage of the unfolding event. I could not help but feel rather apprehensive, considering there was so much tension between Cambodia and Thailand not too long ago,” said the ambassador. She added that she had nonetheless had great experiences here, including “the most memorable and pleasantly fascinating moment” when she presented her credentials to the Crown Prince along with five other ambassadors.
“We have been at this embassy on Pracha Uthit Road since 2007. It is comparatively small and not as big as the one we had before on Rajdamri Road. The white building behind the chancery is a residential block for the Cambodian staff. My residence is in the back of the compound.
“Living at the embassy is convenient for me because I don’t need to spend time travelling. I can stay as long as I like in my office and my boss at the MFA can call me at any time. I am assisted by six diplomats and a few local recruits. This is hardly sufficient, considering that there is so much interaction between our two countries.
“There is a counselor in charge of political affairs who is what I would call the deputy head of mission. I am also assisted by three other counselors, one in charge of labor affairs and the other two in charge of commercial and cultural affairs. I have two more Cambodian staff. They are both second secretaries, one in charge of consular affairs and the other in charge of administration and relations with countries that have diplomatic ties with Cambodia but do not have a mission there.”
Duties and responsibilities
Besides overseeing bilateral relations between Cambodia and Thailand, Mrs Eat Sophea also serves as her country’s permanent representative to UN-ESCAP. Apart from that, she coordinates and facilitates communications between Phnom Penh and the diplomatic missions of 29 countries in Thailand that have accredited ambassadors to Cambodia.
“My role as an ambassador is basically the same as every ambassador. There’s a ceremonial aspect of the job, attending various functions, and in Thailand there are plenty of them. They offer good networking opportunities and I try to attend all that I am invited to, but there are so many and they often overlap. Sometimes three or four events are going on at once. Therefore, it is not possible to accept every invitation. I have to choose and select. This is difficult because I feel they are all important.
“I try my best to engender maximum cooperation from all quarters to promote business, trade and cordial relationship between Cambodia and Thailand. There is a huge consular responsibility, considering that we have close to a million Cambodians who live and work in Thailand. Many Cambodians also cross the border daily for reasons like medical checkups and tourism. Bangkok is also a transit point for many Cambodian delegations.
“There are various high-level delegations visiting Thailand and, of course, border issues. There is also an administrative role in which I have to determine the best use of limited resources to run the embassy effectively. It is also my duty to promote trade and cultural exchanges and cooperation in areas of security, transnational crime, drugs and human trafficking.”
Mrs Eat Sophea said she gets excellent cooperation from the Thai MFA. “I can call and ask them to speed up matters that I have requested assistance on, for example. I have access to many people at the MFA and they are quite helpful. Actually, I feel welcome here.
“I have been in Thailand about a year now and I very much wish to explore all parts of the country. I have already been to some wonderful places. I attended a health conference and Lanna exhibition in Chiang Mai, a very lovely province. I went on a cultural and study trip to Lopburi and Saraburi provinces and had the opportunity to visit Sufficiency Economy projects under the patronage of His Majesty the King of Thailand. I have also taken working tours of Sakeaw, Samuth Prakan, Sisaket, Ubon Ratchathani and Phuket provinces.
“My most recent trip was to Udon Thani, where I visited the Ban Chiang World Heritage site, the beautiful Red Lotus Lake and also the prehistoric Phu Phrabat Historical Park, currently a candidate for the World Heritage list.”
“By the contemporary historical record, Thailand and Cambodia established diplomatic ties in 1950. However, it is a well-known fact that a close relationship between our two peoples has been in place many hundreds of years. We have so much in common. Buddhism is the main religion in both countries; our clothing, customs, performing arts and the food we eat are difficult to tell apart.
“I am pleased to say that the relationship between Cambodia and Thailand is currently warming up, after a tense period from 2008 to 2011. There has been a considerable exchange of high-level visits in recent months. Prime ministers Hun Sen and Prayuth Chan-o-cha have agreed to reinvigorate bilateral cooperation.
“During Prime Minister Prayuth’s official visit to Cambodia last October, three memorandums of understanding were signed, on tourism, railway connections and the elimination of trafficking in persons and protection of victims of trafficking. PM Prayuth’s visit was preceded by a visit by Deputy Prime Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn, Thailand’s minister of foreign affairs. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also met with PM Prayuth on a number of other occasions, for instance on the sidelines of the 5th Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Summit held in Bangkok last December.
“The Cambodian and Thai foreign ministers co-chaired the night meeting of the Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation held January 15-16, 2015, in Siem Reap. This framework covers many areas of cooperation. The meeting achieved significant outcomes and helped strengthen the relationship between the two ministers. There have been many meetings between senior military officials of the two countries as well.”
Turning to economic matters, the ambassador said two-way trade between Cambodia and Thailand amounted to US$4.6 billion in 2013 and US$5.1 billion in 2014. Most of this is Thailand’s exports to Cambodia.
Thailand is the third largest exporter to Cambodia, supplying the country with petroleum, machinery, beverages, construction materials, steel, fruits and vegetables, textiles and various other consumer goods. Thailand represents only a three percent share of Cambodia’s export market. The products exported are mostly agricultural and fish products.
She was hopeful that trade and other economic exchanges between Cambodia and Thailand will increase with the recent agreement to expedite the upgrading of four regional border checkpoints into international checkpoints, and Thailand and Cambodia’s plan to cooperate in the development of special economic zones in border provinces.
“About one million Cambodians are inside Thailand on any given day, according to official figures. Of these, around 700,000 are undocumented workers and their dependents, about 20,000 have been recruited through the formal process and are residing legally in Thailand, and the rest cross the border for a short time before going back,” Mrs Eat Sophea said. “I do not have figures on the number of Thai people living in Cambodia, but certainly it is comparatively small.
“Of course, having so many of our citizens here presents a significant responsibility for embassy staff, myself included, because every day a certain number of Cambodians here will need assistance for whatever reason. They call the embassy and we give them instructions on what to do according to the circumstances. If they get into trouble with the law, we will contact the local authorities to find out how to help them.
“Most Cambodian workers employed are here in lower level jobs in three sectors: construction, agriculture and fishing. Right now, our two governments are in the process of legalizing the undocumented Cambodian workers and their dependents here. Unregistered workers and their dependents have registered to obtain permits to live and work legally here in a campaign conducted by the Thai authorities from June to October 2014.
“The Cambodian government has dispatched inter-ministerial teams to Thailand to issue our citizens passports and the Overseas Cambodian Workers Card. After the workers obtain both documents, they will be assisted with obtaining visas and work permits. The inter-ministerial teams work under the supervision of a secretariat based at the embassy, but the interviews and data collection are done locally, at the provinces they work in. We send mobile teams to them.
“Legally,” she continued, “every Cambodian needs a passport to travel outside the country, but many entered Thailand through informal border passes because we have a long, forest-covered border. So many Cambodians came here without a passport. That’s the reason why we have to send teams here to provide the proper travel documents. Thankfully, the Thai authorities have agreed to this strategy because they want Cambodian workers to live and work here legally.”
The ambassador said the provisions of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) regarding workforce movement and employment across borders do not mean Cambodian workers can just come to Thailand and work without restrictions. “There need to be formal agreements between ASEAN countries on which economic sectors foreign workers are allowed to enter, mutual recognition of professional services. This applies to Thai workers in other ASEAN countries as well. To be beneficial for the countries involved, there have to be agreements such as which areas of expertise should be open to free movement of workers.”
At the conclusion of the interview, Mrs Eat Sophea talked briefly on personal matters. “My husband is currently working in the ASEAN Secretariat headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia. We communicate very often but I miss him a lot. We cannot be posted to the same country. This is an occupational hazard for couples who both work in the foreign services, and it is true for most countries, not only Cambodia. Husbands and wives should be together, but in order for us to be together, one of us would have to quit our job.
“In my free time in Thailand, I have not yet done much besides visit shopping malls, surf the internet and learn Thai,” said the ambassador. “But when I have a chance I would like to visit new development projects as I do at home. I am always fascinated by new architectural and interior designs, as well as handicraft products.”
Name: Eat Sophea
Date of birth: December 16, 1964
Place of birth: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Marital status: Married to Mr Keo Chhea with two daughters, Rangsey (26), and Anita (21)
2004: Master of Public Policy and Administration, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia
1996: Post Graduate Diploma in International Law and Diplomacy, Indian Academy of International Law and Diplomacy, New Delhi
1991: One-year Certificate course in English Proficiency, Regional Institute of English Language, Chandigarh, India
1985: Diplomatic Course, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia
1985: Bachelor of Art in English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
Currently Ambassador of the Kingdom of Cambodia to Thailand
Aug 2012- Jan 2014: Under-Secretary of State in charge of Africa, Middle East and Planning, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and international Cooperation (MFA. IC.)
2008-July 2012: Under-Secretary of State and Chief of the Cabinet of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia
2004-2008: Chief of the Cabinet of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia
1997-2003: Bureau Chief for Central Europe of the Europe Department, Bureau Chief for East Asia of the Asia-Pacific Department, Deputy Director for East Asia and the Pacific, Asia II Department, MFA.IC
1994-1997: 2nd Secretary, Embassy of Cambodia in New Delhi, India
1991-1994: Official and later Deputy Bureau Chief of the East Asian desk, Economic and Cultural Cooperation Department, MFA.IC
May 1985: Began employment with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Information Bureau
2009: Medal of the Kingdom of Cambodia (Chevalier Class) for exceptional service to the nation
2007: Medal Monisaraphoin (Commander Class) for exceptional service to the nation