By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Published on February 9, 2011
Both Thai and Cambodian leaders may say it was the other party that started the military intrusion into their territory, which led to death and injuries over the past few days. But the casualties were truly needless. This is not a time for Thais to unquestioningly unite behind their leaders but a time for calm, inquiry, scepticism and firm denunciation of war, no matter which side actually started it.
The people who died or are suffering are not the political leaders or generals in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, or the ultra-nationalistic, war-mongering, yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and its Cambodian counterpart, but poor villagers and low-ranking soldiers from both nations.
It is at times like this that we should best observe how blind and petty nationalism can be.
The Thai media seem overly eager to report on the casualties on the Thai side and take the words of Thai leaders and generals as more trustworthy. Perhaps it's likewise for Cambodians.
Some nationalistic Thais are calling for the tearing down of Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara, a Buddhist temple built by Cambodians in the disputed territory, and feel there's nothing wrong with such a demand even though they're Buddhists. Surely, if it were the other way round, many Thai Buddhists would cry foul and denounce Cambodians for being "fake Buddhists".
A pamphlet produced by the Thai Patriots Network, which is led by yellow-shirt Veera Somkwamkid, reminds readers how many times "Siamese and Thai territories" were forcibly ceded to British and French imperial powers. But there's nothing about how Siamese and Thai invasions of its neighbours have led to the gaining of land that might otherwise belong to some of our neighbours today. For example, any educated Thai knows that some northeastern provinces along the border with Cambodia are populated by Thais of Khmer ethnicity and many of these people still speak Khmer.
Back to our respective political and military leaders, surely either the Cambodian or Thai leaders are lying, as both claimed the other side opened fire first. But do you simply believe your leader, whether Hun Sen or Abhisit Vejjajiva, simply because you share the same nationality as him? This is tempting, especially when most people have almost no way of independently proving who launched fired the first salvo.
Such an easy and obedient attitude is too risky.
We first must ask who stands to gain the most from initiating such a conflict. We must also ask why can't the issue be resolved peacefully.
Will the Thai or Cambodian military get a bigger budget if they use up some of their artillery caches? But at what price for taxpayers, and for the low-ranking soldiers and poor villagers on both sides of the border, who have died a needless death, and to people who have been displaced and evacuated?
Was this whole affair initiated by some Thai generals in order to make the situation spiral out of control and thus perhaps give an excuse for a Thai military takeover of the civilian government again?
Things are too fishy, considering Veera and company's recent sojourn to the sensitive Thai-Cambodian border and their subsequent arrest, and the call for military action by the yellow-shirt PAD.
This writer doesn't know what the Cambodian premier may be up to. But at times like this, we need to question and scrutinise our leaders doubly hard lest more people end up dying needless deaths for a conflict that might be more about local politics.
When people see the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat, they should not just marvel at their greatness but also be reminded of the exploitation of labourers and craftsmen who worked on the construction.
Similarly, the other side of nationalism is equally ugly.