By The Nation
Published on February 12, 2011
As the border conflict simmers, both Thailand and Cambodia should withdraw troops from the area and sit down at the negotiating table
All eyes will be on the UN Security Council this Monday when Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Nam Hong present their cases to the 15-member body. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, in his capacity as chair of the Asean Standing Committee, will also make a statement.
Considering the microphone diplomacy, the Monday showdown could very well be a juicy event. Cambodian PM Hun Sen is accusing his Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva of committing war crimes, and accusing Thai troops of using cluster bombs against Cambodian civilians and damaging the historic Hindu temple of Preah Vihear. The Thai Army denies the accusations, saying their targets were military.
For a man who used to run with the Khmer Rogue, it appears that the Cambodian leader has gone soft when one takes into consideration his benchmark for what constitutes a war crime. Let's not forget that he has done just about every thing to obstruct the ongoing UN tribunal on former Khmer Rouge cadres charged with crimes against humanity.
At the heart of the problem is the overlapping claim along the Thai-Cambodian border near the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple, whose ownership the World Court decided three decades ago in favour of Phnom Penh. It can be said that a time bomb was also put in place because the overlapping disputed area was not ruled upon.
Bangkok has faulted Unesco for exacerbating the sovereignty spat when it declared the temple a World Heritage site in July 2008 despite Thai objections. Today, the two sides continue to claim ownership over the 4.6-square-kilometre areas surrounding the temple. As they beef up the border with soldiers, they also beat the nationalist drum for the ears of their supporters while paying lip service to the need to strengthen bilateral ties.
Sadly, politicians and political groups from both countries milk the situation for their own selfish gain, while at the same time heightening the political stakes and making it harder for either government to come up with any compromise without looking weak.
For the time being, both Thailand and Cambodia are behaving with the same degree of intransigence, stubbornly refusing to budge on how to move this forward. Bangkok wants to settle the dispute bilaterally while Phnom Penh took the matter to the UN Security Council. The two sides talk about settling the matter diplomatically but in fact they are equally as pigheaded when it comes to agreeing on the modality to settle the dispute. Perhaps they want to keep using military means to serve their political purposes but don't have the courage to say so because such talk is unacceptable in this day and age.
If this dispute becomes internationalised, Thailand stands to lose face in the long run, as the 1962 ruling will be amplified and make Thailand look as if it is still crying over spilled milk.
What is lacking is a game plan from the Thai side. Bangkok appears to be reacting to Phnom Penh's every move. At first, Thailand said it would deal with the issue bilaterally. But when Phnom Penh wrote to the Security Council, Bangkok began dancing to the Cambodian tune. And this Monday the two ministers, plus the Asean chair, will be in New York to state their positions.
First of all, Kasit didn't have to write to the Security Council. He should just have stayed the course. In 2008, during the administration of the late Samak Sundaravej, Thailand used diplomatic means to block Cambodia's attempt to reach the Security Council, in spite of the fact that at the time Cambodia's good friend Vietnam was the chair. It was the same issue involving armed clashes along the border.
The ironic thing is that the Samak administration was doing this on the run, as Government House had been taken over by the yellow shirts. The then-administration stood its ground. Kasit, on the other hand, is a retired diplomat, a top one at that. And in spite of the fact that the then-government was unable to even get into Government House, foreign minister Noppadon Patama had just resigned, and deputy premier Sahat Bunditkul was quickly rushed to the Asean ministerial meeting in Singapore, Thailand's message to, and tactics toward, Cambodia, were not confusing.
So what can Kasit tell the Security Council that will make any difference? That Cambodia shot first and fired artillery into civilian territory, forcing thousands to run for their lives? And then what?
Kasit can start by asking Cambodia to respect international norms and to pull its troops back from the border, especially in the disputed area around the temple. Thailand should do the same.