By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Published on March 3, 2011
Cambodia took a step ahead of Thailand on the implementation of the United Nations Security Council and Asean plan to end the border conflict between the two neighbours when Phnom Penh quickly agreed to the terms of reference for Indonesian observers.
Bangkok might not like having third parties involved in the conflict. But as long as it sits on international forums, it has an obligation to follow the outcomes of those forums' meetings - otherwise it could lose international credibility.
Cambodia managed to get the border conflict in front of international forums at the UN and Asean shortly after skirmishes erupted over the area adjacent to Preah Vihear temple in early February. Thailand's preferred solution, to end the conflict bilaterally, has not yet worked.
The clash was the worst in decades, killing some 10 people, including three civilians, and damaging many properties along the border.
The UN Security Council suggested the two neighbours establish a permanent ceasefire at the border. It supported a role for Asean in implementing the plan.
Indonesia, as current chair of Asean, called an informal meeting in Jakarta on February 22 and agreed to send observers to assess the situation and monitor the ceasefire.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in Jakarta that he had sent the terms of reference (TOR) for the observer mission to the two conflicting parties. Cambodia has already responded positively but Thailand has so far greeted the TOR with silence.
Natalegawa said he would send 30 Indonesian observers, placing 15 on each side of the border near the temple. A five-member advance team from Jakarta reportedly visited the area on the Cambodian side to collect information and prepare for the observers' mission.
It was not clear where the observers wanted to go. The Thai army does not want them to access the so-called "overlapping area" of 4.6 square kilometres, which both sides are claiming. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has said he wants to restrict the Indonesians to areas outside the disputed area.
It is understood that Bangkok wanted more time for concerned agencies to discuss the TOR. But Prayuth said he also wanted the TOR to be discussed in a meeting of the military-run Thailand-Cambodia General Border Committee (GBC). The GBC is co-chaired by defence ministers of the two countries. Cambodia will host its next meeting in June.
Asean's plan is not free from time constraints. Diplomatic sources said Indonesia wanted to dispatch its observers to the Thailand-Cambodia border as early as possible, perhaps by early March.
It is impossible to wait until the GBC has considered the modality of observation in June, as long as large numbers of troops are still at the conflict areas near Preah Vihear. Another clash could erupt at any time. If there is more violence, Asean could be blamed for its failure to activate a regional mechanism to control the situation. And if that happened, the conflict would be sent back to the UN.
Moreover, Indonesia will hold the Asean chairmanship only until the end of this year. The next chair will be Cambodia. Things will get more complicated if the conflict drags on to Cambodia's turn, as the chair of Asean is also a party in the conflict. Phnom Penh could ask Indonesia to carry on, but it would be better if the conflict could be settled before this happened.
The burden is now on Thailand to prove it is not an obstacle to the peace plan.