Newspaper section: News
The ceasefire agreement struck between Thailand and Cambodia poses the interesting question of whether it signifies the beginning of the end or the other way around. The ceasefire has been reached "pending" negotiations that many hope will bring a permanent solution to the border conflict.
In other words, the truce agreed to by the two sides with immediate effect on Saturday at the Chong Sa-ngam Pass border crossing in Si Sa Ket province is only a vehicle to achieving something permanent. Opinion may be split as some might wonder if the ceasefire marks the beginning of the end of the longstanding border hostility or whether it is the end of the beginning of the rough negotiations over the bitter border dispute with peaceful resolution from further rounds of talk far from guaranteed.
The fine print in the ceasefire agreement comes across as supporting the latter theory.
Both sides must hold their fire and not deploy more troops. Fair enough. But all these conditions could be tossed aside if the Asean ministerial meeting tomorrow does not make headway in easing the border violence.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen, do not agree on some key issues, especially on a permanent ceasefire deal.
Hun Sen has said Cambodia would urge Thailand to agree to a peace deal at the Asean meeting.
Mr Abhisit insists Thailand did not start the fight and it is premature to talk about signing any agreement at the Asean meeting, a position reiterated by Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya yesterday.
With a permanent ceasefire unlikely any time soon, a renewed border offensive could be possible.
The confrontation between Thai and Cambodia is in a precarious state. Each side has deployed about 15,000 troops in the disputed area in Si Sa Ket. Heavy artillery faces heavy artillery.
The fact Hun Manet, Cambodia's deputy army chief and son of Hun Sen, came to the ceasefire table in Si Sa Ket as head of the Cambodian delegation was apparently aimed at assuring Thailand the truce would materialise. The Thai side led by army chief-of-staff Daopong Rattanasuwan expected border clashes to ease but ruled out the possibility of an immediate permanent ceasefire.
At 33 years old, Lt Gen Hun Manet, who holds a PhD in economics from Britain, has been thrust into the military leadership. He has not been widely accepted by the rank and file troops stationed in the forests along the border.
Many Cambodian troops are termed "forest soldiers" who spend much of their lives policing the borders. They are not considered by many to be well-disciplined.
Lt Gen Hun Manet may not be able to command all of them, fuelling uncertainty as to how the ceasefire agreement is practical.
Lt Gen Hun Manet was in charge of the troops in the recent clashes as it was his chance to prove his worth. However, the heavy losses suffered by Cambodia bodes unfavourably for the deputy army chief.
The Cambodian soldiers are eager to occupy the disputed 4.6-square-kilometre border area. They may look for an opportunity to launch a fresh attack on Thai soldiers who are abiding by the ceasefire agreement by staying in their positions.
Observations were made that the Chong Sa-ngam truce may be disadvantageous to Thailand.
Cambodia recognises Thailand's superior military capability. That is the reason Cambodia proposed in the ceasefire agreement that the artillery and armaments not be moved.
The ban on the construction of roads stipulated in the ceasefire also means Thailand has to suspend work on a gravel road leading to the disputed area to serve as a supply route.
Thailand welcomed the truce as the government feels that negotiations are the best option. If the fighting continued, the clashes would degenerate into war, which Hun Sen would use to justify his demand for intervention by United Nations peacekeeping troops in the disputed border affair.
If that happens, Thailand will find it hard to defend itself in legal terms and maintain its reputation in the eyes of the world community.
It is calculated that an all-out military offensive does not present a solution to the conflict. At the end of the day, the conflict will be thrashed out at the negotiating table.
However, negotiations after a war has been waged and the issue "internationalised" will work against the interests of Thailand and the country might possibly be seen as bullying its smaller neighbour.
The conflict would also heap even more political pressure on the government, which may not survive the crunch.