Asean and the Thai-Cambodia Conflict

The Foreign Ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are to meet in Jakarta tomorrow for an urgent meeting to seek to solve the Thai-Cambodian crisis. In the aftermath of a series of armed border clashes over the Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia filed a complaint to the United Nations against Thai aggression. Thailand has insisted on resolving the issue strictly on a bilateral basis.

That seems to suggest that the upcoming meeting is likely to fail, based on Thailand's refusal to use the regional mechanism. But there are 10 reasons why Thailand should support Asean's mediation effort in this particular conflict.

First, Thailand's acceptance of Asean's mediator role would be a symbol of the country exhibiting its respect and confidence in the organization, especially in the dispute settlement mechanism. After all, Thailand was one of the founding members of Asean in 1967 and has played an important part in the organizational development over the years.

Second, by allowing Asean's involvement in resolving the dispute, Thailand would demonstrate that it firmly complies with Asean's rules and regulations; those indicated in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and in the Asean Charter whereby members must find a peaceful solution to an interstate conflict.

Third, the support of Thailand for Asean's proposal would act to preserve the good image of and add a great sense of credibility to the organization. Asean has often been criticized by the outside world of being a mere talk-shop and failing to produce any substantial outcome in the almost 44 years since its inception.

Fourth, the willingness on the Thai part to enter into a dialogue with Cambodia brokered by Asean would certainly help minimize the scope of this bilateral violent conflict, thus preventing it from affecting the region's peace and security. Already, the incident on the Thai-Cambodian border has become a black mark in Asean's history. The organization once proudly claimed that throughout its existence in the four decades, no war was ever declared by a member against its neighbour. Such pride was taken away the day Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called the border clashes a "small war".

Fifth, Thailand's approval of Asean's peace-making endeavor could be perceived as a part of the country's commitment to the organisation's goal of achieving an Asean community by 2015. The aim of building such a community could be delayed if Thailand continues to reject Asean's offer to settle its dispute with Cambodia.

Sixth, in the context of Thai domestic politics, Asean's mediation could be highly useful in separating bilateral conflict from the Thai internal crisis. Since 2008, the Thai-Cambodian issue has been politicized by the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Asean's role here is to ensure that a dialogue between the two countries will not be hijacked by any political groups in Thailand.

Seventh, in recognising Asean's signficance in the peace process, Thailand could at the same time reinstall the organization as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Since the beginning of the Thaksin Shinawatra administration in 2001, Asean has not ranked high in Thailand's foreign policy priorities. It is time that Thailand restore its faith.

Eighth, a dialogue with Cambodia would also assist in rebuilding mutual trust and understanding between the two countries. This relationship has been erratic and mostly shaped by the distortion of history and the misuse of nationalism.

Ninth, an agreement with a ceasefire, either temporary or permanent, would most importantly reduce casualties in both sides as a result of their deadly clashes.

And tenth, if successful, Asean's mediation would set a new precedent in the region's peaceful settlement of bilateral conflict. Meanwhile, reconciliation between Thailand and Cambodia could also serve as a good example of how the region's benefit can sometime prevail over their narrow national interest.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.