The fighting and violence that have taken place in the Thai-Cambodia border area violate both the letter of solemn agreements among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its spirit, the spirit which underlies the very concept of ASEAN.
As ASEAN members, Cambodia and Thailand are both signatories to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), which commits them to reject the use or threat of force in the relations between states and to the peaceful settlement of inter-state disputes.
The overriding purpose in this regard is to avoid and prevent actions that result in the death or injury of human beings. Already, between ten and twenty persons are reported to have been killed and countless others injured or displaced in the border fighting between the two countries.
In addition to the provisions of TAC, certain facts have to be kept in mind to avoid the repetition of violence in the future.
The first is that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962 ruled that the temple of Preah Vihear, near where the fighting has occurred, belonged to Cambodia. Both Cambodia and Thailand had agreed to submit their dispute to the ICJ and to abide by its decision. The current dispute is not about the temple itself but over a strip of land nearby, which the ICJ saw fit not to adjudicate but which joint Cambodia-Thailand border and boundary bodies are supposed to deal with.
Another fact to remember is that in 2008 UNESCO listed Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site. It did so upon Cambodia’s proposal but with the support of Thailand. This cooperation between the two was manifested in an agreement signed in June 2007 by Noppadol Pattama, then foreign minister in the government of Samak Sundaravej, a successor to the deposed Thaksin Sinawatra deemed sympathetic to Thaksin. Anti-Thaksin politicians have charged that the agreement violated Thailand’s constitution.
These events were also inflamed by nationalistic public emotions. It would be responsible and indicative of the value that the leaderships in both countries place on human life if they were to dampen the emotional flames instead of fanning them.
As the weaker protagonist, Cambodia has sought to multilateralise and internationalise the matter, including asking for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on it. However, Thailand has expressed its preference for bilateral negotiations. But there are venues for mediating this conflict other than the world body, among them regional countries and ASEAN itself.
In recognition of this, Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono, President of Indonesia, this year’s ASEAN chair, has sent his foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, to Cambodia and Thailand on 7 and 8 February, respectively. The new ASEAN Charter allows the parties to a dispute ‘to request the Chairman of ASEAN or the Secretary-General of ASEAN . . . to provide good offices, conciliation or mediation’. Marty and the foreign ministers of Cambodia and Thailand were invited to the 14 February UNSC meeting, at which all three made statements.
At the end of that meeting, the Council President, Brazil, issued a statement calling on ‘the two sides to display maximum restraint and avoid any action that may aggravate the situation’ and ‘to establish a permanent ceasefire . . . and resolve the situation peacefully and through effective dialogue’. It went on: ‘The (Council) members . . . expressed support for ASEAN’s active efforts in this matter and encouraged the parties to continue to cooperate with the organization in this regard. They welcomed the . . . Meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on 22 February.’
The Cambodia-Thailand conflict puts to a severe test both ASEAN and Indonesia. Indonesia was one of ASEAN’s founders, its largest member and its current chair. Indonesia was where the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was signed and the Blueprint for an ASEAN Political and Security Community was adopted, in 2003. It is the leading proponent of the Political and Security Community, which calls for the prevention of disputes and conflicts from arising between member-states.
The 22 February ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting was called, hosted and chaired by Indonesia as ASEAN’s chair. It resulted in clever compromises among Thailand’s call for bilateral negotiations, third-party intervention, and ASEAN’s role. While the statement released at the end of the meeting underscored bilateral talks, it also repeatedly referred to Indonesia, which the ministers called on to send ceasefire observers on both sides of the disputed territory, as ‘ASEAN’s chair’.
For the sake of their peoples and of the region, not to mention ASEAN’s credibility, the efforts at mediation by Indonesia as the ASEAN chair and a cessation of hostilities must be encouraged and succeed.
Author: K. Kesavapany, ISEAS
K. Kesavapany is the Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.