By Suthichai Yoon
Published on February 17, 2011
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) session on Monday on the Thai-Cambodian conflict proceeded more or less along the scripted scenario. It was no more than a long detour for the two parties concerned to return to Square One.
Neither side could claim victory. That was probably the whole idea behind the UNSC members' decision to invite the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers to offer their versions of what has actually happened.
In the end, it must be a matter for the two sides to try to negotiate an agreement. And if Asean can serve as the facilitator, that would help. But first, a "permanent ceasefire" must be in place and the opposing parties must realise that no third party can effectively resolve the conflict for them.
The Thai prime minister has called them "border skirmishes" but his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen insists it's a "real war".
Abhisit Vejjajiva called for bilateral talks to settle the issue. Hun Sen said only an international forum could solve the two countries' problems. Both probably knew that they couldn't have their way without reaching a stalemate. And a prolonged stalemate will weaken their respective positions.
In more ways than one, the ongoing spat between Thailand and Cambodia is bizarre, bordering on the absurd.
Why? This is probably one of the few cases of an international incident in which diplomats on both sides talk like warriors while their military colleagues hold "peace talks" in the disputed area.
How do you explain this scenario?
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong met and shook hands during the so-called Thai-Cambodian Joint Commission meeting in Siem Reap earlier this month. Both sides agreed to revive the Joint Boundary Commission (JBC) meetings, and tentatively scheduled the next one for later this month. But a week later, the president of Cambodia's JBC, Var Kimhong, was quoted by the Xinhua News Agency as saying: "There will be no meeting of the JBC later this month. Now, bilateral mechanisms cannot resolve the issue."
On the same day, when the question was posed to him, Thai Premier Abhisit was quoted as saying: "I believe the JBC meeting will proceed as scheduled."
But Thailand's JBC chief, Asda Jayanama, is busy with something else. He has not focused on boundary work. Instead, the veteran diplomat has been busy lobbying Unesco in Paris to try to get officials from the UN cultural body to stay away from the disputed Preah Vihear Temple and adjacent area.
Thai authorities claim that Cambodian soldiers fired the first shots that triggered this round of skirmishing. Hun Sen says it doesn't matter who pulled the first trigger - because he is telling the whole world that Thailand is the "invader".
Abhisit hit back: "It's not true that we are the invaders. Their call for a third party to intervene, or for a UN peacekeeping force, is irrelevant."
So, can Asean chairman Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia's foreign minister, who accompanied the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers to the Security Council meeting this week, be described as a "third party?"
Apparently not. Both Abhisit and Hun Sen seem ready to make use of his presence for their respective benefit - as long as his "neutrality" means that Asean won't take a stand and that the scheduled meeting of foreign ministers in Jakarta on February 22 ends with the usual call for restraint and good neighbourly relations. Even the term "bilateral discussions" could become controversial.
Marty says it's going to be a "brief, urgent and informal" gathering with his Asean counterparts. Yes, there is such a thing as measuring up to what he calls "the expectations of the international community". But then, despite Hun Sen's attempt to internationalise or "regionalise" the conflict, any real and lasting solution can only be concluded at the bilateral level.
What transpired from the UNSC meeting on Monday wasn't what Cambodia had demanded. Thailand didn't get what it wanted either. The UN wasn't sending a team of observers or a peacekeeping force. But then, it didn't rule in favour of Thailand's request for bilateral talks either. Asean would be involved, which means that it's not going to be strictly a bilateral affair.
The ball is now back between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Asean can at best serve as cheerleader. No matter how Herculean the task at hand, the leaders of the two countries will have to hammer out a solution with the current joint committees at various levels.
And unless Abhisit and Hun Sen get on the hotline to signal to their respective people that they have entered talking mode, the war of words and real military skirmishes will continue, and probably get worse before the general atmosphere improves.