Monday, 11 January 2010

Laos first stop as P Penh goes complaining

Published: 11/01/2010

(CAAI News Media)

A small story sometimes has big implications. What is happening between Cambodia and Laos nicely fits this definition.

Cambodian Deputy Foreign Minister Long Visalo went to Vientiane last Tuesday. His mission to the northern neighbour was clear. The Cambodian government wanted to brief Laos about its dispute with Thailand.

In the Laotian capital, Long Visalo lectured some 200 Lao Foreign Ministry officials on the history of Preah Vihear, the ruling by the International Court of Justice in 1962 that the Hindu temple belonged to his country, as well as Cambodia's right to list it as a World Heritage Site under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in July 2008.

The Cambodian deputy minister also told his hosts about the border dispute between his country and Thailand, which started after the latter country made a U-turn on its previous stance which had been in support of Cambodia's attempt to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site.

The Cambodian campaign cannot be seen as anything but the start of its efforts to drum up backing from other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to help sort out the border conflict with Thailand for good.

And Laos will not be the only stop in this tactic. On the list, of course, are Burma and Vietnam (the latter is scheduled to take the Asean chair till December).

Phnom Penh's strategy is to turn the dispute over the overlapping land boundary of 4.6 square kilometres into a regional issue by trying to bring in the involvement of other Asean members.

Thailand thinks otherwise, with its intention to keep the matter as a quarrel between two neighbours which should be settled by the two neighbours only.

The more countries jumping in, the more difficult it will be to resolve the problem.

The talks in Vientiane did not cover the issue of ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - at least as far as the information made public shows.

But then again, the Thaksin issue is not a main factor at all for Cambodia.

Ending Thaksin's role as an economic adviser to Phnom Penh is Bangkok's condition for diplomatic normalisation with Cambodia. No country can stand seeing its citizen, who has been sentenced to jail, given recognition by another government.

But for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the root cause goes beyond last year when he added Thaksin to the long list of advisers to his government. It began right there on the border between Cambodia' Preah Vihear province and Kantaralak district in Si Sa Ket province.

The whole issue is about the temple and the land dispute in that area.

"You raise the issue of Thaksin, but you forget the issue of Preah Vihear," Hun Sen said in October, during one of his verbal onslaughts on Thailand.

It is not difficult for anybody to guess that there is no way in sight for the two countries to end the sour ties, given their vastly different positions which are beyond the reach of a compromise. But, as Asean members, they cannot leave relations festering this way, either. Other countries view what is happening between Thailand and Cambodia as an obstruction to Asean's attempts to bring unity into the club which, five years from now, is to become one single community. However, what can other Asean countries do but watch and hope that there will be a miracle to end the two neighbours' quarrel?

Another worry from the Thai-Cambodian spat is that it could spill over to poison ties between Thailand and other members in Asean who are very close to Cambodia. One of them is Laos. The history of their jungle warfare to drive out, first the colonialists and then the Western-supported governments, has made Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam brothers, who also have same positions on issues in Asean. As countries with Thailand as their immediate common neighbour, Cambodia and Laos have long been aware of the rising Thai influence in their country.

So far there are no problems in the relations between Thailand and Laos. But that does not mean everything will go smoothly. Problems still exist but they have been swept under the carpet by Vientiane over the past years because it needed help from Thailand to host the SEA Games last year.

Now the Games are over. Now the Cambodian deputy minister has visited Vientiane. And now the story of Thai-Laos relations in the post-SEA Games era begins.

Saritdet Marukatat is News Editor, Bangkok Post.


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