By The Nation
Published on March 8, 2011
The government has been too slow to respond to initiatives to resolve the border dispute, leaving Cambodia with the moral high ground
Thailand needs to do a lot more work if it really wants to settle the border conflict with Cambodia over the area adjacent to the Preah Vihear Temple. The slow pace of implementation of Indonesia's proposed "peace plan" not only obstructs the peace process but also makes Thailand lose international credibility.
Like it or not, the boundary dispute between the neighbouring countries has already been internationalised, as Phnom Penh has managed to bring it to an urgent discussion at the United Nations Security Council and later at the informal meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers last month.
Cambodia went on the offensive, going to the two international forums with clear objectives to have a third party involved in the boundary conflict resolution. Thailand, under the leadership of Prime Minister AbhisitVejjajiva, has sat defensively without any clear plan.
Phnom Penh said at the UN Security Council meeting on February 14 it wanted a "permanent cease-fire" solution, and the New York meeting finally urged Asean to implement such a plan. Cambodia joined the Asean meeting in Jakarta on February 22 with a call to have Asean observers monitor the implementation of the permanent cease-fire in the areas around Preah Vihear. Indonesia, as the Asean chair, acceded to what Phnom Penh wanted, proposing to dispatch Indonesian observers to assess the situation in the disputed areas.
Thailand, on the other hand, has stuck only with its preference for the so-called "bilateral mechanism" to help solve the dispute. Of course, the international forums recognise that the two countries have many bilateral mechanisms to handle all kinds of issues, including the border, and urged both sides to utilise these mechanisms in this regard. Indonesia agreed to help facilitate them.
The problem is that none of the bilateral mechanisms have begun their work, and Thailand appears to be dragging its feet. Meanwhile the international engagements have begun to materialise. Indonesia has already outlined the modality and sent it to Thailand and Cambodia for consideration. Phnom Penh has replied to Jakarta that it agrees with the terms of reference for the observation of the border, but Thailand is still studying the documents.
Cambodia has taken the lead by moving quickly to shut down Thailand's effort to use bilateral channels to solve the dispute. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Jakarta to quickly dispatch the observers to Preah Vihear, and Cambodia will not discuss the issue in depth with Thailand without Asean or Indonesian engagement. Hun Sen wants Indonesia as a referee for negotiation with Thailand. For Hun Sen, normal bilateral talks no longer exist.
Thailand can blame nobody but itself for its lack of diplomatic skill and its domestic politics that are interfering with an international issue. Prime Minister Abhisit has allowed his political conflict with the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy to stall the Joint Boundary Committee's (JBC) work. The JBC, which oversees land boundary demarcation, has not convened a meeting since April 2009 due to the government's hesitation. It is ridiculous to ask Cambodia to sit down at this stage when the JBC mechanism is unworkable.
Thailand now has no other option but to play along with the game rules set by Cambodia. It must allow Indonesia, as the chair of Asean, to become engaged in the resolution process. The government needs to make a quick decision on the modality (form of procedure) for the Indonesian observers. The modality can be modified but Thailand has no right to reject it, since the government has already been forced to agree in principle to it.
Bilateral instruments remain but they will not be the same, as they now require Jakarta's facilitation. An urgent task for the Abhisit government is to move ahead by having Parliament pass the JBC documents in order to allow the mechanism to resume its work. Rather than continue with the rhetoric about Cambodia coming back to the bilateral meetings, Thailand should prove that the bilateral instruments actually exist and can work.