By The Nation
Published on February 6, 2011
A change of attitude and a sense of responsibility is needed by all sides to cool the border crisis with Cambodia
"Let's not make this a case of one drop of honey that could destroy everything," Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said on Friday as smoke was still rising from one of the worst Thai-Cambodian border clashes in recent memory. The truth is, it has always been that way. Our bilateral ties with Phnom Penh have always been a case of a potential "drop of honey". And that will remain so unless there is a drastic change of attitude and mentality by all concerned.
The Thai saying stems from the idea that a drop of honey on a street attracts flies, which in turn draws a cat to chase them, a dog joins in chasing the cat, and so on ... Likewise, our bilateral relationship has been strewn with booby traps. The issue about management of Preah Vihear Temple will keep returning to centre stage until - or even after - there is a "conclusion". Demarcation disputes are rampant along the border. The controversy over alleged Cambodian "hideouts" or a "training camp" for fugitive red shirts has been like a dormant volcano. And the wound left by the appointment of Thaksin Shinawatra as Cambodia's economic adviser has not completely healed. In Thailand, the yellow shirts will continue to lambaste the Democrat-led government for being too "weak" toward Phnom Penh, while the red shirts will continue to accuse the same administration of giving in to the yellow shirts' hardline nationalism at the expense of bilateral relations.
This is not to say that Thailand is solely to blame for sour relations. Cambodian leader Hun Sen let himself be dragged into cut-throat Thai politics with Thaksin's appointment and constant demonising of the Abhisit administration. The situation seemed to improve when Hun Sen and Abhisit Vejjajiva started direct meetings late last year, but, as Friday's clash has confirmed, the two countries' ties remain on shaky grounds.
For neighbouring countries with solid relations, rounds of "accidental" mortar or artillery fire could be subdued by diplomacy. For Thailand and Cambodia, one assault rifle bullet could generate unpredictable repercussions. And it was not one bullet on Friday. There are casualties, burnt houses and reportedly damaged military vehicles. They provide the ingredients for something far worse than a border exchange, and there were moments when we became seriously concerned that what everyone feared was actually not far off.
There is no good war, and there is no bad peace. The border conflict has killed and injured people and disrupted way of life of the innocent along the border. Everyone involved must take a long hard look at the innocent faces at the border and themselves and decide what it is that they want. Some, of course, will still prefer "sovereignty" at all costs. Nationalists exist on both sides of the border. In Thailand, they bemoan "stolen" land. In Cambodia, they decry sour losers who have been clinging to something about which the world court ruled decades ago.
It is all right to contest "sovereignty" claims. It is not all right that people have to die or be injured in the process. Nationalists in both countries who cite "sacrifices" by their ancestors to reinforce their claims simply admit that territorial rights were decided by force in the past. If those rights must continue to be decided by force, the question is: When and how is this going to end? Using force to decide issues only means the stronger will win, but just for now. There is no "justice" or "fairness" involved, as many may think.
Thailand and Cambodia have pulled themselves back from the brink, but only barely. That "one drop of honey" is still very much there and fresh, waiting to spark even bigger trouble. It's the responsibility of all, not just both governments, to let it dry out. Everyone must try to come back to his senses. Disputed areas are an important issue, but they are not as important as neighbourly relations, a peaceful way of life at the border and whatever good friendship can bring about.