Friday, 11 February 2011

via CAAI

Published: 11/02/2011

Driving around the European Union, one can crisscross borders without even knowing, except for the few posted signs, a change in the dialect or language, or your car's GPS system alerting you to the exact location. Wars are a thing of the past - from the harsh lessons learnt through centuries of blood, tears and lives lost from the ambitions of men in conquering territory. Borders have become imaginary lines drawn on maps, but irrelevant to everyday life, especially for those living in the vicinity of those boundaries.

The battle over a hilly patch of land in the remote countryside near the ancient Preah Vihear temple is rooted in a decades-old border dispute that has fuelled nationalist passions and been driven by domestic politics and conspiracy theories on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border.

True, no one can be absolutely certain that men of Europe will not again resort to wars to resolve conflicts in the future, but for the present the EU is a model of regional cooperation others can only aspire to, and reap the promises of wealth created through free movement of trade in goods and services.

And as the new millennium progresses - one which predicts the rise of the Asia-Pacific region - the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations look forward to becoming the lynchpin of dynamic change by taking advantage of the economic growth of China and India, and by building a free trade bloc of their own by the year 2015. Conflicts turn into cooperation, borders open up and sea lanes are secured, making a "win-win" formula for the 21st century.

So what is going on with the current border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia? Why are we arguing, with guns drawn and shots fired, over imaginary lines and centuries-old ruins? Aren't we supposed to let bygones be bygones and work together for the future of our children's prosperity?

Through thick and thin since the Cold War era, with the five original Asean members who agreed upon the Bangkok Declaration in 1967, up to the present 10 members, Thailand has always been at the forefront in fostering friendship and nurturing delicate relations, balancing between the spirit of cooperation amidst competition. After the Cold War, it was Thailand that initiated the policy of turning zones of conflict into market places which has greatly fuelled this sub-region's economic growth for more than two decades.

But in 2009, as Thailand assumed its turn as chair of Asean, the Thai government failed miserably to organise the Asean summit and meeting with leaders of dialogue partners. The ongoing political conflict led to a disastrous chain of command on security measures that allowed the red shirt protesters to penetrate the meeting venue.

Some may blame the red shirts for not respecting protocol and preserving national interest, but the politics that interfered and clouded the better judgement of the police and military commanders in charge not only signified the illegitimacy of the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but at worst laid bare the weaknesses in the Thai political structure, which could open up opportunities for competing nations to take advantage of.

Usually, domestic politics have been immune to Asean members meddling in each other's affairs due to the agreed principle of non-interference. But in regard to the present conflict with Cambodia, the present government has literally handed an "invitation to interfere" on a gold platter. This is because since they wrested themselves into power, the government and its supporters - the military and the People's Alliance for Democracy or the yellow shirts - have embarked upon a "one track" foreign policy of hunting down the fugitive and ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

But as a nation, Thailand does not have enough leverage to be demanding, pressuring even, that others join its cat-and-mouse game around the world. And is the government wisely using up the nation's goodwill on such a matter?

Veteran Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen therefore saw an opportunity to exploit the issue and provoke Thailand to Cambodia's benefit in building its own negotiating leverage at both the bilateral and multilateral levels. He shrewdly manipulated the events leading up to the current border clashes. For Hun Sen, war is an extension of politics - to paraphrase Karl von Clausewitz. War is "a political instrument, a continuation of political relations" to gain international attention for Cambodia's plight and advance Hun Sen's cause and pleas on issues ranging from Cambodia's claim to the Preah Vihear Temple grounds, to economic interests and international recognition.

Meanwhile, the Thai government's attempts to appease its own political allies, the PAD in particular, has painted itself into a corner. The bumbling trip which Panich Vikitsreth, the Democrat MP and former vice minister for foreign affairs, took across the disputed borderline under the orders of PM Abhisit, fumbled into the PAD's trap and ended up in a Cambodian jail.

Furthermore, by stirring nationalist sentiment to show toughness, the government signalled the military not to tolerate the Cambodian flag or the insulting stone tablet placed at Wat Keo Sikha Kiri Savara in the disputed area. All this could have been resolved through diplomatic channels, had the leaders been on talking terms as in the past. But Mr Abhisit could not make Hun Sen take his phone calls.

Please do not get me wrong, I do believe in a strong military presence in the same way as seeing police patrol even the quietest of all neighbourhoods. But force is not the primary tool of diplomacy in this day and age. A shouting match in which each calls the other a bully is also not conducive to the business of creating regional cooperation and free trade. Some may view Hun Sen as a thug but in reality he has been in power for more than two decades and continues to remain strong. Thais must live with this fact. People living along the border do not want war. They barely care about the scales of maps being debated since they live in the reality of making a living, with friends and relatives across the border. The military is not war-hungry either, as the top brass realise the consequences in body count and injury.

It is the politicians who must get their act together and stop mixing mob politics and their own interests with the affairs of state in diplomacy and international relations. A fight over imaginary lines is pointless. The PAD's unreasonable demands must be totally ignored and its protest rallies dispersed in accordance with the law.

We require proper leadership from the prime minister. This is not politics as usual where one can wriggle out with a few nicely placed words. Action is called for, to reposition Thailand as a mature partner in Asean and the world community. Thailand must not become the "basket case" which the government is turning us into.

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