Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Hun Sen bangs the war drum too early

By The Nation
October 15, 2008

Cambodian PM's threat of military action over disputed border territory is a gross overreaction

No one really knows what went on at the closed-door meeting on Monday evening between Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat and his Cambodian counterpart, but Cambodian PM Hun Sen wasted no time in making his point. An ultimatum was issued even before Sompong touched down on Thai soil: Hun Sen gave Thailand until midday yesterday to withdraw troops from areas of overlapping territorial claim or he would use military force to resolve the matter.

Sompong, not known for his diplomatic finesse, was just as bullish. He suggested that folks in Phnom Penh need to cool down and added that such areas around the Preah Vihear Temple belong to Thailand.

"The problem is not about withdrawing or not withdrawing - it's our territory. How can they tell us that it is their territory?" Sompong told reporters.

"As soon as I returned, there was a report of a deadline. What can we do? We are in our own homeland, and they want us to evict us from our own home."

Like everybody in Thailand, Hun Sen is frustrated that a resolution to the three-month border stand-off is moving at a snail's pace. Tensions between the neighbours first flared in July and escalated into a six-week military face-off on a small patch of land. Up to 1,000 Cambodian and Thai troops were involved. In August both sides agreed to reduce troop numbers. Part of the reason for the slow pace has to do with the fact that Thailand is going through one of its worst political crises in decades. The government has not been able to formally receive its mandate from Parliament and will not make any unilateral move on foreign policy matters for fear of violating the Constitution.

The tit-for-tat action continued yesterday with both sides bluffing one another. Hun Sen maintained his tough rhetoric, saying he has "Ordered all military commanders to take responsibility for the area. The area is a life and death battle zone. Ants can hurt elephants. They [the Thais] should not have done this."

Not long after that, Cambodia's top general told reporters that some 80 Thai troops had already pulled back. But the Thai Foreign Ministry shot back, accusing Hun Sen of violating the spirit of neighbourliness.

If Cambodia resorts to force, "Thailand will have to exercise its right of self defence," the Foreign Ministry said, adding it was investigating whether Phnom Penh had violated an international treaty by laying new landmines in the area.

The tension began when the temple was awarded World Heritage status by Unesco, with the endorsement of the Thai government. The UN cultural body and the Cambodian government ignored a plea from the Thai courts, which had concluded that the endorsement by the then government of Samak Sundaravej was unlawful.

So much for good neighbourliness and so much for a cultural body whose short-sightedness did absolutely nothing to assure peace and stability between the two neighbours. Unesco acted as if its World Heritage status was some god-given right and ignored the fact that a strongman in Phnom Penh was exploiting it for political gain.

The Monday-night war drum was not the first time Hun Sen has crossed the line with Thailand. His unwarranted comments on the Thai ability to chair Asean meetings still ring in the ears of many in Bangkok. No Asean members belittled Cambodia when it was at its nadir; there was only a genuine desire to help.

Perhaps if the Khmer Rouge had held a course on Leadership 101 for its cadres, Hun Sen would be a different person. The recent commentary, "The World Leader in Corruption Is - Cambodia" by Joel Brinkley, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University, will give a better understanding of the man who runs Cambodia.

Like the Thais, the Cambodian people deserve better than shortsighted leaders who will do anything to score quick political points, even if it means putting people's lives at stake.

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