APRIL 26, 2011
Bangkok's political turmoil is damaging regional stability
Fighting over the disputed territory surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple along the Thai-Cambodia border resumed last Friday, with both sides trading artillery fire and accusations of targeting civilian villages throughout the weekend. The Associated Press reports 12 soldiers confirmed dead.
The world may never know which side started the latest clash, since Thailand continues to resist allowing international observers to monitor the area. And both countries deserve some blame for stirring the pot at various times. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly clear that the Thai military is doing nothing to ease the tension.
That much we know from the way that the military, and then Bangkok, vetoed initiatives to get the two sides talking. After the last major bout of fighting in February, Cambodia succeeded in bringing the matter to the United Nations Security Council, which promptly kicked it back to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia, the chair of Asean this year, has played shuttle diplomacy trying to bring the two sides together, but Bangkok continues to balk. That has allowed Cambodia to play the aggrieved and more reasonable party.
Thailand's unwillingness to even contemplate compromise may be due to the broader impasse in its domestic politics. In 2008, the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy, more commonly known as the yellow shirts, took up the temple issue as a cudgel against the government of Samak Sundaravej. The same group has now turned on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and is castigating him for not taking more aggressive action to recover the temple.
Meanwhile, the military is positioning itself as the main defender of the monarchy and Thai sovereignty. Tension between the military and the civilian government has been mounting since Mr. Abhisit announced elections would be held within the next few months. Bangkok is rife with rumors that a coup is imminent.
The military, palace and business elite all fear that supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will win their fourth straight general election. The last three results were annulled by a coup and court rulings, and the red shirt supporters of Mr. Thaksin have become increasingly restive as a result of their disenfranchisement. Even if their Puea Thai Party wins, there is a strong chance they will not be allowed to form a government. So further unrest later this year seems likely.
In this context, a fight with Cambodia might seem an appealing way out of the deadlock. A limited war with a much smaller neighbor could unify Thais, as the red shirts would feel pressure to get behind the military in a time of national crisis. Mr. Abhisit, who has never won an election and is widely regarded as a figurehead within Thailand, could be dispensed with, and elections pushed off until the glow of victory and massive public spending restore the Bangkok elite's popularity.
Perhaps the Thai military understands how much could go wrong with such a scenario and is only engaging in brinksmanship. But even this runs the risk of accidental escalation. And once a conflict starts, Asean nations would be put in the impossible position of having to choose sides, which might tear the organization apart.
Thailand's friends have a responsibility to dissuade the military from military adventures. It's also time they addressed the root cause of the problem. This conflict is a sign that the nation's internal political crisis is beginning to generate external costs, showing once again that Asean's credo of noninterference in domestic politics needs to be tempered with an awareness that promotion of democracy is part and parcel of regional stability.
As long as the military is allowed to play its pivotal role in national politics, Thailand will fail to play its rightful role as a stabilizing force in Southeast Asia.