By Clifford McCoy
Indonesian observers have arrived on the Thai-Cambodian border in a multilateral bid to monitor the implementation of a tentative ceasefire between the two sides. The fight has called into question the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) core "no-war" policy and caused the regional grouping to rethink its long held policy of non-interference in member states' internal affairs.
Armed hostilities between Thailand and Cambodia in February resulted in the deaths of at least 11 and displacement of thousands of villagers in the area. Preah Vihear, the 11th century temple at the center of the territorial dispute, as well as another nearby temple, suffered significant damage from shellfire and small arms.
The fighting was the heaviest since border tensions escalated in 2008, and this time threatened to spread beyond the contested 4.6 kilometer area around the temple into a full-scale border war. Thai and Cambodian military and government officials claimed they acted only in self-defense and accused each other of starting the shooting, which involved small arms, rocket propelled grenades and exchanges of artillery fire.
A 1962 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded the temple to Cambodia, but did not stipulate who owns the land adjacent to the temple. The issue largely remained dormant until 2008 when Phnom Penh applied to the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for World Heritage status for the temple, a move that stoked nationalist sentiment in Thailand.
ASEAN aims to settle disputes before they spiral and maintains a no war policy among its members. True to that credo, there here have been no open wars between ASEAN members since its founding in 1967 and all member countries are signatories to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which has been adopted as the region's code of conduct. The grouping has in the past helped to diffuse a series of border disputes and other bilateral issues.
Some analysts believe ASEAN's mediation of the current dispute between Thailand and Cambodia could set a precedent for future conflict resolution in the region. The grouping is not known for taking proactive measures on security and political issues and has often swept nettlesome issues under the carpet in the interest of group harmony. Although this stance has helped the grouping to mature, become more cohesive and a relatively respected international player, it has failed to establish structures to deal with issues when they go beyond bilateral arrangements.
If allowed to spiral into open war, the dispute between Bangkok and Phnom Penh not only threatened to destabilize the region but could also have lead to a breakdown in ASEAN as a security community. Rather than work through ASEAN's perceived as ineffectual security mechanisms, member nations could decide to resort to force to settle issues or seek solutions outside the ASEAN framework.
On the other hand, a successful mediation of the dispute would provide ASEAN with enhanced credibility on issues that affect the peace and stability of the region. It would also further cement ASEAN as the key linchpin in several security structures, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, Asia-Europe Meeting, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Forum (ADMM) and the ADMM Plus Eight.
The United Nations gave ASEAN its implicit support following a February 14 meeting on the dispute at the UN Security Council (UNSC). While the council was willing to hear both countries' versions of the dispute and urged a bilateral ceasefire, it made no binding statements. Instead it gave its backing to the efforts of Indonesian foreign minister and current ASEAN chairman Marty Natalegawa. Closed door discussions between Thailand's and Cambodia's foreign ministers, Natalegawa and UNSC president Maria Luiza Ribiero Viotti of Brazil were held on the sidelines of the UNSC meeting.
Natalegawa had already earned praise for his quick initiative in travelling to Bangkok and Phnom Penh to push for talks between the two countries to end the conflict and his participation at the UNSC. Throughout his negotiations, Natalegawa has made clear that the issue should be settled bilaterally, but "at the same time, there is always space for ASEAN and members of ASEAN to support the bilateral effort".
Natalegawa followed up by calling a meeting of foreign ministers from all 10 ASEAN nations in Jakarta on February 22. An agreement was reached that built on a ceasefire agreed between military commanders on February 20 and acted on Thailand's suggestion the next day of embedding Indonesian observers with units on both sides to monitor the ceasefire. While no permanent ceasefire has been signed, ASEAN observers are seen as a first step and a sign of commitment to the ceasefire. It was also agreed that further bilateral talks with Indonesian participation will be held in the near future.
Up to 40 Indonesian military and civilian observers are scheduled to "embed" with Thai and Cambodian military forces stationed at the border. The arrangement does not create a buffer zone, but provides for monitors to report back to the ASEAN chairman as well as to Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Natalegawa has made it clear that the observers are "not a peace-keeping or a peace enforcement team". At the same time, he has characterized the intervention as a "seminal development in ASEAN's capacity to deal with a conflict situation."
Significantly, ASEAN's maneuvers have received the backing of both the United States and China. Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a regular press briefing, "China appreciates and supports Indonesia's active mediation efforts to tackle the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict under the ASEAN framework."
US State Department spokesman P J Crowley said during a regular press briefing on February 23 that the US welcomed "ASEAN's efforts under the leadership of Indonesia" and supported the call of ASEAN foreign ministers for Cambodia and Thailand to resume bilateral negotiations "at the earliest opportunity".
That said, there is still the potential for Thai and Cambodian domestic politics - widely viewed as the driving force behind the ramped up dispute - to undermine ASEAN's mediation efforts towards a permanent solution. But with ASEAN observers present and the recognition that peaceful resolution of the issue is not only in the best interest of Thailand and Cambodia, but also ASEAN as a whole, there is powerful multilateral incentive to avoid further armed conflict.
Clifford McCoy is a freelance journalist.