Asia Sentinel, Written by Pavin Chachavalpongpun
Wednesday, 09 February 2011
The reasons behind the Thai-Cambodia Conflict
For centuries, the ancient Preah Vihear temple, a Hindu masterpiece, has
stood largely unmolested on a cliff overlooking the Thai-Cambodian
border. However, over past three years, the temple has been an
increasing point of conflict between Thailand and Cambodia that appears
to be fomented for purely domestic political motives.
the latest dust-up, events have demonstrated the relative weakness of
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is clearly unable to control
his own military, and of the Association of Asean Nations, which appears
to have little or no influence in stopping the conflict.
reports have circulated in both Bangkok and Phnom Penh about the
reasons behind the clashes even though the two countries’ armies earlier
agreed to call for a truce over the temple, which was awarded to the
Cambodians by the International Court of Justice in 1962. Some sources
say there was a lack of communication between the Thai government and
the military. While Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appeared to prefer a
diplomatic option to resolve the crisis, the military decided to use
There is also a conspiracy theory. The People’s
Alliance for Democracy – the royalist Yellow Shirts—is said to be now
working with the military to weaken the Abhisit government, apparently
because the two parties were not happy with the prime minister’s
enthusiasm to call for an election as soon as April. According to this
theory, the military in particular fears that this would diminish its
role in politics, too soon. The roots of the most recent cross-border
conflict can be found in the decision by a joint PAD-Democrat Party team
to cross into Cambodia, where they were promptly arrested. One PAD
member, Veera Somkwamkit, remains in a Cambodian prison.
some local residents on the Thai-Cambodian border reportedly said that
the Thai military was fed up with the way the Abhisit government has
handled the territorial dispute issue. On Feb. 4, Thai and Cambodian
troops experienced their worst clash, a violent conflict that included
gunfire and artillery duels, killing at least two Thais and eight
Cambodians. Some 3,120 Thais were evacuated from a village close to
where the incident took place. The temple itself was damaged by
artillery fire from Thai guns.
Thus, to express its frustration,
the military chose to fire artillery into the Preah Vihear Temple,
damaging it and earning condemnation for Thailand for its thoughtless
behavior, which could ultimately destroy the centuries-old World
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen exploited the
armed clashes to strengthen his power position by displaying his
nationalistic emotions. The last time Hun Sen displayed his love for the
Cambodian motherland, it cost Thailand its embassy in Phnom Penh in
2003. Then, Hun Sen was accused of being reluctant to intervene in an
arson attack against the Thai diplomatic mission by so-called Cambodian
nationalists. Analysts saw the incident as Hun Sen’s plot to divert
domestic issues which could ruin his chance in the upcoming election.
has also been reported that the scale of devastation on the Cambodian
side as a result of the fresh clashes was massive. Hun Sen appears
certain to retaliate. Thailand will have to wait and see how
Thai-Cambodian relations will go from here.
While the latest
confrontation is certainly the work of domestic politics in Thailand and
Cambodia, it has engendered a negative impact on Asean, of which the
two countries are members. Immediately, Asean Secretary-General Surin
Pitsuwan urged the two to find a peaceful solution.
"I am deeply
concerned about the serious situation on the border between Thailand and
Cambodia," Surin said. "This violent conflict must be brought under
control and return to negotiating table soonest."
He also added,
"I have been in touch with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for
Foreign Affairs of Cambodia Hor Namhong, and the Foreign Minister of
Thailand, Kasit Piromya, and I have appealed for calm, maximum restraint
on both sides, and expressed my fervent desire to see both sides return
to a negotiating table as soon as possible."
As members of
Asean, Thailand and Cambodia have broken the group’s tradition of
consultation and cooperation in time of bilateral crisis, and in
particular, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in which all
member states commit themselves to peaceful settlement of disputes.
aggressive behavior has also challenged the Asean charter. As
stipulated in Article 22, "Member states shall endeavour to resolve
peacefully all disputes in a timely manner through dialogue,
consultation and negotiation, and Asean shall maintain and establish
dispute settlement mechanisms in all fields of Asean cooperation."
has thus called the two sides to allow the treaty organization to help
bring them to some form of a temporary truce and cool down the emotions
and temper so that a higher interest of both peoples and that of Asean
can be protected and enhanced. Surin stressed, "The situation has
escalated into open conflict. And that will definitely affect our
economic development, confidence in our region, and tourism and prospect
for foreign investment, which have just been picking up in light of the
world economic recovery."
In the past, while Thailand expressed
its preference to deal with the conflict strictly on a bilateral basis,
Cambodia frequently has turned to the United Nations for help. This time
too, Cambodia has filed a complaint at the United Nations Security
Council over the "Thai invasion". Both bypassed regional dispute
settlement mechanisms, thus revealing their lack of faith and confidence
Often criticised as a mere talking-shop, Asean could
prevent itself from being perceived as a laughing stock in the eyes of
the global community if its members would allow this regional
organization to play its rightful and legitimate role, particularly in
dispute settlement. Many anticipate a new role played by Indonesia, as
Asean chairman this year, to step up its diplomatic efforts to aid the
two sides to arrive at a temporary solution, at least to allow the
existing bilateral mechanisms between them to accomplish their
objectives of border demarcation and a general peace in the areas.
Indonesia succeeds in bringing Thailand and Cambodia back to the
negotiation table, not only will this effort boost the authority of the
current Asean chairman, it will also prove to the critics that Asean has
indeed become a mature organisation. That may well prove unlikely,
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at the Institute of
Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of Reinventing Thailand:
Thaksin and His Foreign Policy. The views expressed here are his own.