Thursday, 10 February 2011
Column: Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thousands of U.S. troops are currently training Bangkok's poorly disciplined, coup-prone military to "defend Thailand" while a bloody artillery duel between Thailand and Cambodia has disrupted their border, and a decades-long southern Muslim insurgency smolders out of control.
America's 30th Cobra Gold, from February 7 to February 18, is one of the biggest multinational land-based military exercises on earth, involving 11,220 people, including 7,200 U.S. service members.
U.S. and other foreign forces are using Thailand's Vietnam war-era Utapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield in Chanthaburi province and other facilities, about 280 miles (450 kms) southwest of the fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border.
The U.S. Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Third Marine Expeditionary Force, is deployed in Korat, about 180 miles (290 kms) west of the clashes.
U.S. boots are on the ground in this Buddhist, Southeast Asian, non-NATO ally, while a shooting feud between Thailand and Cambodia has killed at least eight people on both sides, since February 4, along their border.
Thailand and Cambodia attacked each other's jungle-based positions with artillery, mortars, rocket-fired grenades and other weapons, occasionally pausing for a "cease-fire" and then shooting again.
They fought for at least one hour on February 7 after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said, "We need the United Nations to send forces here and create a buffer zone to guarantee that there is no more fighting."
Elsewhere in Thailand, the U.S. military's Cobra Gold planned several live-fire demonstrations and other assaults.
Thailand's Lt. Gen. Surapun Wongthai serves as exercise commander, with U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck Jr. as deputy commander, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported.
Among the U.S. Marine units participating in Thailand are: Okinawa's 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment acting as its ground combat element; Marine Wing Support Squadron 172; Marine Aircraft Group 36; and Combat Logistics Regiments 35 and Combat Logistics Regiment 3, it said.
The Sasebo, Japan-based USS Essex, USS Germantown and USS Denver are also involved.
Cobra Gold training exercises include service members from Japan, South Korea, Singapore and -- for the first time -- Malaysia.
An amphibious assault is scheduled for Thursday on Thailand's southern Hat Yao coast.
The Cobra Gold 2011 opening ceremony was held on February 7 in Thailand's second largest city, Chiang Mai, about 485 miles (780 kms) northwest of the Thai-Cambodia battle site.
"Cobra Gold 2011 is the 30th Thai-U.S. military exercise designed to ensure regional peace through a strategy of cooperative engagement, and strengthens the ability of the Royal Thai Armed Forces to defend Thailand," wrote Lance Cpl. Alejandro Pena of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, on the official U.S. Marine Corps website.
The cross-border fighting by Thailand and Cambodia was not expected to spill into areas used by Cobra Gold.
Each side repeatedly said the other country's forces fired first after shells landed in Thailand and Cambodia, hitting nearby villages, setting homes and shops on fire, and forcing hundreds of people to flee.
Both Bangkok and Phnom Penh claim to own the thin slivers of disputed border land, and possession over the stone rubble of an 11th century Hindu temple, built by Cambodians when their Khmer kingdom stretched across much of present-day Thailand.
The cross-border fighting damaged the Preah Vihear temple, which was part of an ancient network of scattered Hindu shrines when Cambodia's nearby Angkor Wat complex acted as a center of political and spiritual power more than 900 years ago.
Preah Vihear also occupies a strategic military position because it is on a high cliff, overlooking northern Cambodia's flatlands 1,722 feet (525 meters) below, about 150 miles north of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
If Thai forces can dominate Preah Vihear, or its surrounding territory on Thailand's eastern border, they would enjoy a high ground position against Cambodia, making both sides wary of each other's military forces close to the Dangrek Mountains' cliffside zone.
"Thailand is gravely concerned about the use the temple of Phra Viharn [Preah Vihear] by Cambodia for military purposes," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva wrote to the UN Security Council on February 7.
The temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and lucrative tourist attraction.
Both countries want to profit from the growing number of travelers seeking to visit the ruins, and who use restaurants, shops, hotels and other facilities during their journey.
The temple was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice, but a two-square-mile (4.6-sq-km) area on the surrounding cliff is disputed, while both countries point to different historical maps.
The office of UN Security Council Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York said on February 6: "The secretary-general appeals to both sides to put in place an effective arrangement for cessation of hostilities, and to exercise maximum restraint."
Bangkok's internal political problems are also a wild card in the volatile mix which could concern Cobra Gold.
During January, Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha announced he "did not want to stage a coup," despite his role in a 2006 putsch.
Thailand's military has staged more than 18 coups and attempted coups since the 1930s, with the most recent in September 2006 which overthrew the popularly elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In April and May, the army battled pro-democracy Red Shirt protesters who blockaded Bangkok's streets, resulting in 91 deaths -- mostly civilians -- amid protests against the coup and demands to restore Mr. Thaksin to power.
The Red Shirts did not oppose last year's Cobra Gold, but Sean Boonpracong, a Red Shirt spokesman at the time, warned "if the United States ignores us, we would put forth more opposition to the next Cobra Gold exercise" in 2011.
"We have tens of millions of followers," said Mr. Boonpracong, who later distanced himself from the Red Shirts after being briefly detained by the army last year.
Earlier, the poorly disciplined Thai army suffocated to death more than 78 minority Malay-Thai Muslim men in 2004, after tying them up and laying them flat on top of each other in army trucks.
Each year, London-based Amnesty International and other human rights groups report alleged extrajudicial killings and torture cases committed by the army in the south, along Thailand's border with Muslim-majority Malaysia, where an unstoppable insurgency has left more than 4,000 people dead on all sides since 2004.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent/