February 9, 2011
BANGKOK -- Nationalist fervor and political grandstanding are stoking a deadly border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia but both sides will be keen to avoid major hostilities, experts say.
Although the exact trigger for a series of armed clashes in recent days is unclear, tensions have grown since seven Thais — including one lawmaker — were arrested by Cambodia in December near the frontier for illegal entry.
Two of them were sentenced to lengthy jail terms for spying, outraging nationalist Thais, who have held protests in Bangkok calling on their Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign.
Observers say the recent cross-border fighting, focused on the area surrounding an ancient Khmer temple, is being used in both countries to stir patriotic sentiment with elections on the horizon.
Yet while Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen has unleashed a torrent of fiery rhetoric, accusing Thailand of being an invading aggressor and calling for U.N. intervention, for Abhisit the standoff is seen as another unwanted headache.
“Hun Sen is deliberately playing this to vitalize nationalist sentiment and reinvigorate support for himself,” said Professor William Case, director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong.
Hun Sen is “something of a tough guy ... but I don't think it will be allowed to get totally out of hand,” he told AFP.
“On the Thai side this is a confrontation that the leadership would very much like to avoid. The nationalism on the Thai side is not so much coming from the government but from the masses, to which it has to respond.”
“Yellow Shirt” Thai nationalists turned out in their thousands over the weekend demanding Abhisit's resignation over the issue.
The royalist protest movement is strongly critical of Cambodia over issues such as the border row and Phnom Penh's appointment of Thailand's fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economics adviser in 2009.
Seven people, including at least two civilians, have been killed since the fighting broke out on Friday around the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, with both sides accusing each other of firing the first shots.
Ties between the neighbors have been strained since the temple was granted U.N. World Heritage status in July 2008.
The World Court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear itself belonged to Cambodia but both countries claim ownership of a 4.6-square-kilometer (1.8-square-mile) surrounding area.
“Nationalistic fervor is fueling both sides of the conflict,” said Professor David Chandler, a Cambodia expert at Australia's Monash University.
“Kicking Cambodia around has been a Thai hobby since the 14th century; Cambodia biting back dates from the colonial era and of course from the World Court 1962 decision.”
Michael Montesano of the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore said the border issue “certainly plays well” in Cambodia.
“Cambodian efforts to protect their rights along the border and stand up to a stronger Thailand have political benefits for Hun Sen,” he said.
The 59-year-old strongman — who has ruled since 1985, vowing to remain in power until he is 90 — is looking ahead to a general election in 2013.
In contrast in Thailand the government and military would prefer to avoid a confrontation, while nationalist activists “are determined to keep tensions with Cambodia on the boil,” said Montesano.
The Yellow Shirts were once allies of the establishment-backed Abhisit, but relations have soured and the group's political party is eyeing elections expected some time this year.
“With elections in Thailand approaching, the country's civil society nationalists will play the Cambodia card to build up support for their parties,” said Paul Chambers, a Thai expert at Germany's Heidelberg University.
“Preah Vihear has fallen victim to ultra-nationalism on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border.”
Despite the tough talk and casualties on both sides, observers believe the risk of a full-blown conflict remains slim.
“It will be a matter of bilateral negotiations with the possibility of further skirmishes,” said Professor Mark Turner at the University of Canberra in Australia. “It's difficult to envisage any widening of the armed conflict.”