BANGKOK ― The military skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia that have claimed more than two dozen lives, caused scores of injuries, and displaced tens of thousands of people since February are primarily attributable to domestic politics in both countries. Rooted in ancient enmities and the legacy of the colonial era, the fighting is damaging the entire region. So virulent is the dispute that even a short-term settlement will require third-party mediation. A secure peace will depend mainly on how the endgame to Thailand’s domestic political crisis plays out in the coming months ― and on Cambodia’s willingness to stay out of this process.
At issue in the conflict is 4.6 square kilometers that adjoin a millennium-old Hindu temple known as “Preah Vihear” to Cambodians and “Phra Viharn” to Thais. Cambodia insists that the disputed land has been under its territorial sovereignty since a landmark case decided by the International Court of Justice in 1962. In its 9-to-3 verdict, the ICJ ruled that Cambodia’s map, drawn up by French surveyors in 1904-1907, put the temple area in Cambodia, and that Thailand (known as Siam until 1939) had not objected previously. During the hearings, Cambodia asked the ICJ to rule on the adjoining land, but the judges confined their decision only to the temple, as Cambodia originally requested.
The French-made map became the core of the dispute, because it manipulated natural geographic divisions. Thailand rejects the map, which contravenes a Franco-Siamese agreement in 1904 stipulating a demarcation along a watershed line separating the two countries. Moreover, the French mapping effort took place just a decade after Siam ceded a clutch of territories ― much of today’s western Cambodia ― to France, which was then perched above Indochina as the colonial master. At that time, a vulnerable Siam was compelled to sign a host of unequal treaties with European powers in exchange for maintaining its independence.
Until recently, the overlapping claims on the 4.6 square kilometers were not a serious issue. Villagers and merchants from both sides conducted a brisk business and border trade unfettered by the authorities. Bilateral tensions flared when Thai politics heated up after the September 2006 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, on charges of corruption and disloyalty to the monarchy.
In 2008, after the self-exiled Thaksin’s proxy force, the People’s Power Party, took power following an election victory, the Thai government signed a joint communiqu agreeing to Cambodia’s listing of Preah Vihear Temple as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The communiqu became a lightning rod for Thaksin’s opponents at home, spearheaded by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.
The PAD depicted the UNESCO registration of Preah Vihear as a treasonous sell-out of Thai sovereignty, and used it to destabilize the pro-Thaksin government. When the PAD seized control of Government House and Bangkok’s two airports, its protest leaders hectored Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and likened him to a hooligan. Exacerbating matters, the PAD progenitor of that insult became Thailand’s foreign minister after Thaksin’s opponents regained power in December 2008, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and reinforced by the army.
At that point, tensions with Cambodia became inevitable. Hun Sen had scores to settle with the anti-Thaksin coalition of the Democrat Party, the PAD, and the army. In 2009, Hun Sen appointed Thaksin as economic adviser to the Cambodian government and invited him to deliver a high-profile public address in Phnom Penh. The bilateral relationship has been rocky ever since, alternating between periods of friction and conciliation.
The spate of armed clashes along the border this year stems from PAD provocations. Although some of its members entered the cabinet under Abhisit, PAD leaders felt betrayed and abandoned by Abhisit and some of his powerful backers. The PAD’s yellow-clad supporters returned to the streets, this time under the banner of ultra-nationalism over Preah Vihear and a domestic anti-corruption campaign. The PAD has openly called for a military coup to clean up Thai politics.
The PAD initially found little traction. The Thai army stayed out of the Preah Vihear controversy, and Abhisit’s government shrugged off the PAD’s machinations. But, as the anti-establishment, pro-Thaksin “red shirts” staged huge protests of their own against the army’s suppression of their fellow demonstrators in April-May of last year, the men in uniform became agitated. A major tipping point may have been the red-shirt leaders’ allusion to the conspicuous royal silence in response to the army’s violent suppression, which heightened the army’s fear of a clear and present danger to the monarchy.
The Thai army abandoned its neutral posture and became increasingly belligerent. It unilaterally ruled out the presence of regional observers on the Thai-Cambodian border, a deal mediated by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in February. The Abhisit government, congenitally beholden to the army, took its cue and effectively reneged on the Indonesia-brokered peace drive. It was a blow not only to Indonesia as the chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, but also to ASEAN itself, particularly given the organization’s quest to become an ASEAN Community by 2015.
If ASEAN is not allowed a mediating role, the Thai-Cambodian spat may wind its way back to the United Nations Security Council, which earlier delegated the issue to ASEAN amidst heavy lobbying by Cambodia and Thailand. Cambodia wants to multilateralize the border conflict as much as Thailand tries to limit it to bilateral negotiations.
Though the Thai-Cambodian border battles have involved tanks and heavy artillery, they are unlikely to degenerate into open, large-scale warfare. The ASEAN framework acts as a safety net and mutual commercial interests should ultimately prevail. But sporadic shooting and verbal antagonism between the two sides will continue, as Thailand’s powers-that-be close ranks in a right-wing turn towards the symbols and institutions of royalism, entangling Hun Sen, who should have stayed on the sidelines, in the endgame unfolding in Bangkok.
By Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is professor and director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok. He is also a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. ― Ed.