By Avudh Panananda
Published on February 15, 2011
The best-laid plans to pave the way for early elections may go up in smoke if Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva fails to launch negotiations to resolve the dispute with Cambodia over the area surrounding Preah Vihear Temple.
This week and the next will be crucial to determine if the two countries have a reasonable chance of patching up their differences.
At the 35th meeting of the World Heritage Committee in July, Cambodia will be pushing for its Preah Vihear management plan, which also covers the area claimed by both countries.
Thailand cannot afford to be in the middle of an election campaign or be busy forming a coalition if it plans to defend what it believes is its territory.
For peace to prevail and for the ancient temple to be treated like a cultural heritage site in a sustainable manner, the international community should pay attention to Thailand's plea for the two neighbours to map out a boundary settlement before enforcing the temple's management plan.
Make no mistake, Thais might be bickering among themselves about where the borderline with Cambodia should be, but nobody is questioning the historical and cultural significance of Preah Vihear.
Yet, pushing for an approval of the management plan too hastily will do more harm than good, because any perceived or real violations of territorial integrity will increase the risk of a military confrontation.
After the UN Security Council meeting yesterday, Asean foreign ministers decided to meet next Tuesday in Jakarta. With two international forums devoted to facilitating a resolution to the boundary dispute, Thailand and Cambodia are obliged to reach an amicable agreement.
At this juncture, the exact format of the talks and scope of the negotiations remain unclear. All we know is that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is clear about his intent to promote Preah Vihear as a heritage site.
Unless Abhisit can manage to consolidate Thailand's position on the boundary issue, negotiations with Cambodia will always return to square one - Thailand having to buy time for the insurmountable task of border demarcation.
The time-consuming process of drawing the borderline might take decades to complete. In the meantime, is it really wise turning the heritage site into a flashpoint pending boundary settlement - the outcome of which nobody can predict?
Although the People's Alliance for Democracy is pushing for the military option, the yellow shirts have conceded that the fighting would not be an end in itself but a means to strengthen the Thai position for negotiations.
Those on the Thai and Cambodian sides, particularly the war mongers, are overlooking one fact - the negotiations, if they ever take place, will not be confined to drawing up a borderline. Instead of carving the land up in pieces, the two countries could designate the disputed border as a joint development zone.
For hundreds of years, Argentina and Brazil have had a conflicting claim over the Iguazu Falls, but they've put aside their differences and are now co-managing the World Heritage Site from either side of the border.
Thailand and Cambodia will find forming a joint development zone mutually beneficial, but before this becomes a viable option, Thais will have to form a common stand. At present, many see the issues related to Preah Vihear through the prism of territorial dispute, but they need to keep the borderline and world heritage issues separate.
Despite there being an unclear borderline, there is no reason why the Thais and Cambodians have to block access to a heritage site that is sitting on their common border.