By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops represent the heaviest armed exchanges since border tensions first erupted in 2008 and threaten to spiral into a wider conflict as both sides incur casualties and extend their positions beyond the original 4.6 kilometer border area in dispute. Fighting entered a fourth day on Monday, with no ceasefire in sight.
Both sides have claimed the other fired first and that return salvos were launched in self-defense. The clashes were presaged by a ratcheting in tensions. Bangkok had earlier demanded Phnom Penh remove a marker claiming ownership of a patch of the contested territory and later insisted that a Buddhist temple in the area stop flying the Cambodian flag.
Bangkok's assertiveness coincided with a Cambodian court decision last week to sentence on espionage charges two Thai activists to lengthy jail terms for entering a border area claimed by Cambodia. Meanwhile, anti-government protests in Bangkok have called on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down for his alleged mishandling of border issues.
Bilateral relations hit a nadir in 2009 after Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen invited exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who the Thai government has accused of orchestrating and financing street violence, to serve as an economic adviser to his government. Hun Sen has also provided safe haven to Thaksin-aligned protesters who Bangkok has accused of terrorism and other charges. Nonetheless, government relations were on a warming trend until Phnom Penh arrested seven Thais, including a parliamentarian, on contested turf in January.
Despite the international dimension, the conflict is being driven largely by Thai domestic politics. Because Abhisit did not give the order to open fire, some see the armed exchanges and immediate breakdown of a ceasefire declared on Saturday as yet another indication that he lacks command control over the military. The hostilities and protests come at a time some believe Thailand's top military brass seek a national security-related pretense to stall Abhisit's early election plan.
Abhisit insinuated recently he may dissolve parliament and call new polls as early as April, eight months earlier than he is constitutionally required. The current military leadership, including army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, would likely be sidelined quickly should the opposition Puea Thai party win and form a new government. Puea Thai takes its marching orders from Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military putsch.
The opposition holds Prayuth, then the army's deputy commander, as chiefly responsible for the killing of scores of its aligned United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protesters during armed street clashes last April and May. A Puea Thai-led government would likely launch new investigations, with a focus on Prayuth's, his top level military allies and Abhisit's alleged roles in the killings. Current probes into the violence have been slow-moving.
Under those pressures, the once coherent storylines that have defined Thailand's six-year-old political conflict are fast fragmenting as establishment forces once united against Thaksin now compete to steer the country's future political direction. That's most visibly apparent with the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group, whose once potent street protests ushered Thaksin's 2006 military ouster and the collapse of two successive Thaksin-aligned governments in 2008 by occupying Government House and Bangkok's international airports.
Previously supportive of Abhisit and the Democrat Party's rule, the PAD has in recent weeks mobilized around the notion that his government has ceded sovereignty of contested territory, including the symbolic Preah Viharn temple, to Cambodia. The street protest is notable for its lack of anti-Thaksin propaganda and defense of the monarchy themes, both pivotal to the yellow-garbed movement's previous ability to draw large middle class crowds.
Until the border clashes, the PAD's appeals to nationalism vis-a-vis Cambodia has failed to galvanize much enthusiasm, with crowds gauged by this correspondent on different evenings hovering between 2,000-4,000 supporters. That's largely because the PAD's current incarnation is not representative of the same unified establishment forces - including Abhisit's now ruling Democrat Party - that it was previously.
One government source notes that the PAD's protest and threats of stirring wider instability have coincided with a recent court ruling against 82 PAD guards, who were handed down prison sentences for their roles in raiding and shutting down a state television station's offices. The official contends that the PAD has played the nationalism card to bolster its relevance while the case against its leaders for occupying Bangkok's airports in 2008 is still pending.
The bigger question for stability surrounds the status of the PAD's ties with the military and monarchy. Once viewed as a front for pro-royalist, anti-Thaksin forces - including inside the armed forces and royal advisory Privy Council - those perceptions pivoted with the April 2009 assassination attempt by heavily-armed assailants against PAD co-leader and media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul.
While nobody has yet been prosecuted for the attack, police issued warrants for at least four soldiers, including from the army's Special Warfare Command.
Sondhi has never publicly accused Thaksin or renegade UDD-aligned soldiers for ordering the attack. A US Embassy cable from November 2008, released by WikiLeaks, quoted an adviser to Queen Sirikit saying that the palace was "highly irritated by the PAD's occupation of Government House and other disruptions caused by the anti-government group".
Still, some have speculated that the military has swung back towards the PAD with the transition from outgoing army commander General Anupong to new chief Prayuth as a way to pressure Abhisit out of his early election plan. With the reappearance of the PAD on Bangkok's streets, this time as ultra-nationalists in defense of Thai territory, local newspapers have been awash in unexplained coup rumors. (T-shirts for sale at the PAD's protest advertise for a "civil-military coup".)
The foil to that reconvergence has been the simultaneous overtures the PAD and its allied Thai Patriots Network have made to the UDD to join protest forces against Abhisit. As the two protest groups flirt with what still seems an unlikely merger, it once again underscores how Thailand's conflict is more about personality than ideology.
That leaves Abhisit to convince Prayuth that early polls are a better bet than backing the PAD and fomenting instability on the border. According to a source familiar with the situation, the Democrats recently hired an international election polling firm to gauge its election chances. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Abhisit cited an unnamed poll that he said showed the Democrats were the popular frontrunners for new elections.
An election win would lessen Abhisit's reliance on the military, which many believe cobbled together his coalitions, and quiet opposition charges that his administration lacks democratic legitimacy because his party placed second, not first, at the 2007 polls. Until then, however, expect more bombshells on the border and rally cries from the streets.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.