Published: 14/02/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Following the border clashes with Cambodia which erupted two weeks ago and ensuing attempts to reach a peaceful resolution, Thailand now finds itself playing on two diplomatic chessboards. Later tonight (Monday night, Bangkok time) we will know the results of the first face-off between Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong as they present their cases to the United Nations Security Council.
The Asean chair, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, will also be there, playing a pivotal role in game one, as well as game two - the "urgent" meeting of Asean foreign ministers on Feb 22 in Jakarta, aimed at facilitating a resolution.
In New York today, the UNSC will hear two key messages - apart from statements from both sides that "they shot first". Thailand will state that the Cambodian attacks indiscriminately damaged civilian property and killed one civilian while Cambodian troops used Preah Vihear temple and its immediate surroundings as a military base to fire into Thai troops and civilians and as shelter, which exposed the temple to grave danger and destruction. Cambodia, on the other hand, will insist that "this is a war" that cannot be resolved bilaterally but that a resolution can be achieved with the presence of a third party.
Like it or not, Cambodia has managed to internationalise the dispute. From an Asean perspective, Phnom Penh can cite Article 28 of the Asean Charter which allows it to seek "the right of recourse to modes of peaceful settlement" contained in Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. Under this UN article, the UNSC shall call on the parties to first settle their dispute and seek a solution "by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice". The Security Council has already called on Thailand and Cambodia to resolve their differences through these means.
But given the two differing positions of Thailand and Cambodia on the prospects of bilateral talks resolving the dispute, and the Asean chair's proactive role in offering assistance, the UNSC can today rely on the UN Charter's Article 52 and 53 which opens the door for "regional arrangements and agencies" to play a role in dispute settlements.
Since Thailand and Cambodia are members of Asean, the UNSC today could urge both parties to, according to the UN Charter, "make every effort to achieve pacific settlement of local disputes through such regional arrangements or by such regional agencies before referring them to the Security Council". Or the UNSC, after listening to ministers Kasit and Hor Namhong, could (again under the UN Charter) suggest that the "regional arrangement and agencies", that is Asean, assist in resolving the dispute.
The key question is what decision will the UNSC adopt today? It is likely that the UNSC will recognise that the dispute is a threat to regional peace (not international as Cambodia has portrayed things) and that both countries find a peaceful and amicable solution soon. But at the same time, the UNSC could suggest that any unresolved issue be open to a third party's good offices, conciliation and mediation while adhering to the UN and Asean charters. In other words: go back and sort out your problems peacefully and if you have problems, consult Mr Marty (and Asean) who should report back when progress is made.
If this is the gist of the UNSC decision, unlike other decisions of UN bodies, it is binding and must be respected and implemented by the disputing parties. Therefore Thailand needs to think ahead and hard, not only of how it will react to the results of chess game one but how it can manage in chess game number two - the urgent Asean meeting of foreign ministers in Jakarta on Feb 22.
An Asean role in assisting to resolve disputes among member states in not really new. In 1997 when the dual premiership arrangement in Cambodia fell apart the Asean Troika was formed comprising Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. The Troika was assisted by participants of the Asean Regional Forum, including the United Nations, which formed a Friends of Cambodia Group, which played a supporting role, in overcoming the problem.
There is no doubt that Thailand and Cambodia have their national interests to protect. But at the same time, in this period of change, they are also members of Asean and must have the interests of Asean at heart. An effective Asean - with the means and an effective and accepted mechanism to resolve disputes, especially political disputes that erupt into violence - is good for its individual members and the region as a whole. Such a mechanism will help boost confidence in the region because it can sort out problems in its own backyard among members. This can only help boost its competitiveness in the medium and long terms.
Clearly this is a difficult challenge, not only for Thailand and Cambodia, but all its members because it involves balancing national and regional interests. Ironically, the current dispute provides a golden opportunity for its individual members to chart the course in open terrain and build this dispute mechanism.
Already the role played by the Indonesian foreign minister as the Asean chair is a proactive and positive one. But how can the role of the Asean chair - and even that of the Asean secretary-general - be truly enhanced and taken further as a mechanism of "conciliation and mediation" according to Article 22-24 of the Asean Charter? If such a mechanism can be forged, the next question is what is the relationship between this mechanism and the United Nations Security Council or the United Nations secretary-general?
Thailand needs to look ahead at these issues and - as it has in the past - play a key role in shaping this process or mechanism that will help shape and forge the future of Asean. Like it or not, the ball will be in Thailand's court as chess game two commences in a week's time. Of course, the current dispute, the meeting of the UNSC and the meeting in Jakarta next week, is more than a game.
Thailand must adopt a more meaningful and proactive role. It needs to be more forward-thinking as it is in the country's national interest in order to achieve peace and prosperity along its borders and within the region.
Pichai Chuensuksawadi is Editor-in-Chief of Post Publishing Plc. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.