By JAMES HOOKWAY
BANGKOK—Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Wednesday he plans to call national elections by the middle of this year, even as a border conflict with Cambodia threatens to complicate his party's bid to remain in power.
At least eight people have been killed in skirmishes that began Friday near Preah Vihear Temple along Thailand's border with Cambodia. Thousands in the area have fled their homes.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A Cambodian monk looked out from inside the Preah Vihear Temple Tuesday.
The sporadic violence has prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to send a team to assess damage to the 1,000-year-old Hindu temple, which was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008 and is regarded as a high point of the Khmer civilization that once dominated much of mainland Southeast Asia. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to discuss the issue Monday.
Thailand and Cambodia have wrestled for years over the temple, and over more than 4.6 square kilometers, about 1.8 square miles, of nearby land that allows easy access to the site and so controls tourism revenue. The International Court of Justice awarded Cambodia control over the temple in 1962, but didn't rule on the land.
Ownership of this patch of land has become especially politicized in both countries recently. In Thailand, protesters have surrounded government headquarters in Bangkok, demanding Mr. Abhisit do more to support the Thai claim to the site.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen also has used the issue domestically to burnish his nationalist credentials.
Political analysts say the dispute is a double-edged sword for Mr. Abhisit, raising questions about whether he can proceed with planned elections and bring long-term stability to one of Southeast Asia's linchpin economies.
In mid-January, Mr. Abhisit appeared to be in full campaign mode, launching a heavily publicized welfare program live on television. Under Thai law, Mr. Abhisit must call elections by the end of this year, and analysts say he is eager to do so quickly in hopes of establishing his own popular mandate. He was elected premier by Thailand's parliament in late 2008.
Mr. Abhisit, 46 years old, also faces continuing criticism for his government's response to massive street protests in Bangkok last April and May against his government and in support of populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a military coup in 2006. More than 90 people were killed, many by security forces that established live-fire zones in some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods.
Protesters were calling for early elections, and some analysts say even now elections would help resolve Thailand's problems and restore Mr. Abhisit's standing.
Although analysts have long believed supporters of Mr. Thaksin would easily win a national election, some have begun to question that assumption. Thailand stabilized following last year's protests and posted strong economic growth in the second half of the year, which could improve Mr. Abhisit's chances. But waiting until late in the year could give opponents time to regain momentum, especially as economic growth is expected to weaken amid rising inflation.
On Wednesday Mr. Abhisit told a closed-door gathering of investors in Bangkok that he intends to hold a vote in the first half of the year.
"The prime minister has made it clear he will not stay until the end of his term, and the election will be held within the first half of the year," says a government statement summarizing Mr. Abhisit's remarks.
But some people familiar with the situation say some members of the armed forces and other Thaksin opponents—worried that elections might return Mr. Thaksin's supporters to power—may seek to disrupt election plans by distracting Mr. Abhisit with the Cambodia issue.
"I would say the internal politics in Thailand are very much responsible for what's happening on the border with Cambodia," says a prominent Thai academic, Pavin Chachavalpongpun. "That's not to say the conflict wouldn't happen without it, but it is a significant factor."
The Thai and Cambodian armed forces blame each other for triggering the conflict. But whichever side started it, the standoff could make it more difficult for Mr. Abhisit to hold a national vote, despite his announcement Wednesday.
Though the prime minister intends to call an early election, says his acting spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, "there need to be three elements in place before he can do that: an economic recovery, some constitutional amendments due to be voted on this Friday, and a peaceful overall environment."
Mr. Panitan says Thailand's government and armed forces are in constant communication, but that "peaceful environment" is bit of a stumbling block at the moment.
Although Mr. Thaksin is now living overseas to escape imprisonment on a 2008 corruption conviction—which he dismisses as politically motivated—he and his populist policies still have a strong following in vote-rich parts of north and northeastern Thailand.
In recent months crowds of up to 40,000 antigovernment Red Shirt protesters, many allied with Mr. Thaksin, have rallied in Bangkok pressing for new elections and the release of protest leaders arrested and charged with terrorism during last May's marathon rally. The size of the crowds caught many government and security officials off guard.
Write to James Hookway at email@example.com