Nirmal Ghosh - Straits Times Indonesia
April 28, 2011
Heavy artillery clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops damaged homes in Thailand's Surin province and reportedly killed a Thai civilian. The border dispute has intensified over the last week, sending more than 50,000 people fleeing to evacuation centers. Reuters Photo)
Bangkok. Thailand's defense minister on Wednesday abruptly canceled a visit to Phnom Penh to discuss a ceasefire with his Cambodian counterpart, on grounds that Cambodian media had interpreted his visit as a sign of capitulation by Bangkok.
But Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in his first remarks after the latest round of clashes — which continued with sporadic artillery exchanges yesterday - said “Cambodia doesn't want the conflict to spread further.”
“Cambodia is small, poor and [with] small armed forces, but don't forget that ants can hurt an elephant,' he said, adding he would raise the issue at the Asean summit in Jakarta next weekend.
In Bangkok, Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters: 'I will definitely talk with Cambodia, but I don't want the public to think the decision to talk is a defeat for Thailand.'
He said he would talk with his Cambodian counterpart after returning from a scheduled visit to China.
Later, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva downplayed the change of plan, saying talks had merely been rescheduled.
He visited residents displaced by the clash yesterday, spending a few hours at camps in Surin province.
Thailand and Cambodia remained far apart on the conflict, which saw more artillery fire being exchanged yesterday for the sixth day running. Unconfirmed reports said one civilian was killed on the Thai side of the border.
Thailand's Cabinet on Tuesday ordered a review of bilateral cooperation and military options against Cambodia.
Cambodia reacted yesterday, with foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong saying Phnom Penh “condemns in the strongest terms Thailand's threat and belligerent actions to use its larger and materially superior military might to take control over the Cambodian territory recognized by the International Court of Justice in its 1962 judgment.”
That ruling awarded the disputed 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the border to Cambodia — a decision reluctantly accepted by Thailand.
The temple site and adjacent land still under dispute have been the scene of sporadic clashes since mid-2008 when Thai nationalists revived the issue. The area saw more clashes on Tuesday.
The Cambodian Premier in his remarks at a function in Phnom Penh said: “We have to respect the role of Asean. All the negotiations about the disputed border areas near Preah Vihear temple must be with the participation of the third party.”
Bangkok, however, has been resisting third party involvement, with the army rejecting the idea of having observers from Indonesia — the current chair of Asean — despite Thailand's foreign ministry agreeing to such an arrangement in February.
Apart from being a major player in domestic politics and security, the Thai military has traditionally called the shots on border policy, and the civilian government has had to accommodate it.
Professor Duncan McCargo at the University of Leeds was quoted in The Independent as saying “the Thai army has always demanded the right to pursue an independent foreign policy to advance its own ends.”
“By prosecuting this bizarre and pointless border war, the military is trying to present itself as the true guardian of the national interest, seizing the moral high ground from civilian politicians.”
On the Cambodian side, conflict with Thailand plays into the hands of Mr Hun Sen, who has had a prickly relationship with Bangkok since the Democrat Party came to power in late 2008.
To the Thai military, the border dispute also has a domestic political angle.
The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which in 2006 campaigned against then Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was supported by many retired and serving senior army officers.
It raised the Cambodia issue in 2008, claiming the Thaksin-loyalist government at the time had made concessions to Phnom Penh. With right-wing elements vocal in Bangkok, the army does not want to appear soft on Cambodia.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 2553 5055.