By: Our Correspondent

At sunrise in Thailand's Surin province, the tranquil Good Friday
morning of April 22 was disrupted by exchanges of gunfire between Thai
and Cambodian troops. The real causes of the latest armed clashes were
unknown. But what is known is that both sides have accused each other
for initiating the skirmish and prolonging a deep sense of hostility.

"Cambodian
soldiers fired with assault rifles at Thailand first and… started to
shell us with artillery," Thai Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon
said. He also added, "I think Cambodia wanted to take over temples on
the border."
Meanwhile, Cambodia accused Thai troops of entering its
territory. "Thai troops crossed the border and attacked our military
bases," said Cambodian defense ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat.

This
was followed by an urgent note sent by Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor
Namhong to the United Nations Security Council, complaining about what
he claimed was a "deliberate act of aggression." Thai artillery shells
had landed 21 km inside Cambodian territory, he said in the note, which
was released to media in Phnom Penh.

The current tit-for-tat
accusation has exhausted analysts who are monitoring the tense situation
along the Thai-Cambodian border. One the surface, it is just another
violent breakout between the two estranged neighbors. At a deeper level
however, it indicates an increasingly agonizing state of Thai domestic
politics.

First, the Good Friday clashes have provided another
much-needed opportunity for the Thai military to take full control of
foreign policy vis-à-vis what is perceived to be the country's
number-one enemy. Over the past months, the Thai army has been wrestling
hard with the Foreign Ministry for the overall domination of foreign
policy toward Cambodia. For the army, taking over foreign policy is
crucial, as this guarantees its political role as well as authority in
the decision-making process.

The clashes also took place at the
right time. Instability, and even war, along the border would justify
the military's request to UNESCO for the postponement of the discussion
of Cambodia's management plan in the surrounding Preah Vihear area. The
35th World Heritage Committee (WHC) will be meeting from June 19-29, in
Paris. Thailand has insisted that the 4.6-square-kilometre disputed area
must be demarcated before talks on management can begin. A new round of
armed conflict with Cambodia is possibly a deliberate act to derail the
WHC agenda.

Above all, the armed confrontation has highlighted
the essential notion of national security. According to the Thai
traditional view, in time of crisis the country needs a strong army to
ward off external threats. Taking this view, the military could have
criticized the Abhisit Vejjajiva government for insisting to exercise
diplomatic means to achieve peace.
Indeed, there are valid reasons
to believe that the military has never wanted Abhisit's soft approach to
prevail. It is evident that the military was silent when its political
ally, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), sent its members to
cross into Cambodia illegally in December last year to stir up already
fragile Thai-Cambodian relations. The PAD earlier urged the government
to adopt a harsher line against Cambodia—a suggestion supported by the
army.

Second, the violent clashes erupted just less than two
months before the much anticipated election, due in late June. After
Abhisit made known of his intention to hold an election a few months
ago, he received a cold response from the army. The army fears that
proxies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will return to
power, thus jeopardizing the military's power position.

From this
perspective, the military has gone on the political offensive. The
royalist army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has assumed his
full-time political role and now administers Thailand from his
comfortable barracks. He has become the darling of the pro-elite media,
appearing on television more frequently than the handsome
Oxford-educated prime minister. One of his political activities is to
file a complaint against some core leaders of the red-shirt movement for
committing lèse-majesté.

On top of this, a coup is also a
possible choice. On April 21, the nationwide television blackout, caused
by a satellite technical glitch, sparked intense coup rumours. The
military presence in Thai politics is at an all-time high.

How are the armed clashes along the border connected to the upcoming election?

The
military has sent out a strong message that war on the Thai East is
serious, and continues to threaten Thai sovereignty. Under this
precarious circumstance, the military may ask: Should Thailand go ahead
with an election, especially if the election will bring more
"uncertainties" in the political domain?

The election is likely
to go ahead, and the military is trying hard to help install an
anti-Cambodian regime. Throughout the Thai crisis, Thaksin and his
supporters in the red-shirt faction have been perceived as
pro-Cambodian, anti-Thai interest elements. It would be unimaginable to
see the next "red" government handling the Cambodian issue at the
expense of the military's diminishing interest in domestic and foreign
affairs.

Lastly, the fuss about Indonesia's intervention in the
Thai-Cambodian conflict, about the mediating role of Asean and about the
preferred approaches to the solution (with Thailand being firm on its
bilateral modality), is nothing more than the military's stubborn
behavior and its desperation to hold on to its power position even as
Thailand's political landscape has begun to shift in recent times.

Perhaps
the Thai military may want to learn some new facts. Bilaterally,
Cambodia has no longer played a passive part; it has refused to be
bullied by the supposedly more advanced, more modern and more superior
Thai neighbor. Domestically, the anti-military sentiment in Thailand is
rapidly being heightened. The rejection of election and the coup will no
longer be responded lightly by many pro-democracy Thais.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Opinions expressed here are his own.