Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Take down those flags

via CAAI

Published: 1/02/2011

Cambodian authorities are being unhelpful or even provocative by extending the issue of their national flag in a disputed border region. The attempt by Phnom Penh's foreign ministry to turn the issue back on the Thai government is a rather cheap ploy.

It is unresponsive to the elementary and understandable request by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for Cambodian authorities to remove national standards from a border region that is legally disputed and politically tense.

From the government's statements so far, it appears that a temple is at the heart of the flag issue. The Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda was built more than a decade ago. It predates the controversial memorandum of understanding which is a flashpoint at the yellow shirt rallies. It also is older than the contentious 2001 application by Cambodia for Unesco to list Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage Site.

There is a rather insubstantial wooden arch at the end of the temple grounds, above which are two Buddhist flags, and a Cambodian standard. Another flag is painted onto the entranceway.

For years, authorities have either ignored or been unaware of the Cambodian flags. Conveniently, Mr Abhisit has just learned the temple was flying the Cambodian flag. The revelation came immediately after last week's issue of the stone tablet proclaiming "Here! is Cambodia" and complaining of "Thai invasion".

Mr Abhisit is certainly right that these bits of Cambodian nationalism are completely out of place. There is no excuse for provocative displays anywhere near the 4.6 sqkm territory claimed by both countries.

It is interesting, however, that the issue of these flags and tablet arose just as three anti-government groups began street rallies. The yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy, its offshoot the Thai Patriots Network and the Santi Asoke sect continued to maintain semi-independence. They are united against the Thai foreign policy towards Cambodia.

It is, indeed, national policy. The disputatious MoU dates back to the Chuan Leekpai government in 2000. Various negotiations and agreements have continued through every government. But the protesters blocking public thoroughfares around Government House believe the policy will result in ceding Thai territory.

Mr Abhisit knows it will not. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, once a firebrand speaker at PAD rallies, knows this, and so does the rational Thai public.

The stone tablet and the flags have given Mr Abhisit a chance to show strength in standing up to the Cambodian government. Without altering agreements and treaties, the prime minister has still been able to show considerable gumption in his demands that Cambodia smash the tablet and, now, remove the flags.

Cambodian forces smashed the offensive stone tablet after Thai complaints. That gesture deserved, and got, credit.

But now Cambodia's foreign ministry has considered Mr Abhisit's demand to haul down the flags, and the answer is hardly serious. Mr Abhisit (the Cambodian officials say) is conducting military exercises and making demands that are provocative. Translation: Mr Abhisit is right but sometimes we have to appear tough, too.

It is a problem that Cambodian flags fly at or near disputed territory and they should come down. Mr Abhisit, however, likely could achieve the desired result through diplomatic channels rather than the media. Relations with neighbours are too important to be affected by street rallies.

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