Asean and a Manufactured Crisis
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.
And, in 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 Souheast Asian Nations, which appears to have little or no influence in stopping the conflict.
Unconfirmed 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 force instead.
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.
Meanwhile, 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 Heritage site.
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.
It 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.
The 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."
Surin 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 in Asean.
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.
If 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, however.
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.