The Thai Military's Latest Sortie

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.