By Suthichai Yoon
Published on May 5, 2011
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was asked last week whether he would try to arrange for the Thai and Cambodian premiers to meet at the Asean Summit to be held here later this week. His prompt response was: "No, I don't want to wait that long. The sooner the better."
The bilateral, top-level meeting between Abhisit Vejjajiva and Hun Sen has yet to materialise after a series of military skirmishes. Whether they will sit down and hold serious talks here later this week remains to be seen.
On the eve of the Asean Summit, the Thai-Cambodian armed conflict threatens to seriously undermine the regional grouping's credibility. The "Asean Option" to resolve conflicts between member countries may prove to be ineffective. The lack of an effective dispute settlement mechanism, despite the existence of the much-heralded Asean Charter, will continue to weaken the regional grouping.
Foreign Minister Natalegawa told a group of Asian editors from the Asia News Network (ANN) here last week: "As the host, we don't want the summit to be a single-issue gathering about the Thai-Cambodian confrontation. That's why I am pursuing peace aggressively for both countries. We have several other issues to consider at the summit, including those of Burma and the South China Sea."
There is a general feeling here that this week's summit of the 40-year-old regional grouping will be held under a dark cloud of cynicism over its future as a cohesive organisation.
Rizal Sukma, the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, wrote in the Jakarta Post last week: "Asean would be hard-pressed to gain international respect if it cannot even gain respect from its own members. It is, therefore, absolutely imperative for both Cambodia and Thailand, and also Indonesia as the 'facilitator', to immediately implement the Jakarta agreement. Not doing so would bring about greater risk - not only to the conflicting parties, but also to Asean as a whole.
"Even without territorial disputes and border conflicts, it has already been difficult for Asean to realise its plan to become a regional community. If the conflict and the loss of life continues, the ideal "we-feeling" among Asean states and the absence of the use of force as the main characteristic of a security community would be harder to create. Consequently, the international community would look at the ideal of an Asean Community as just imagination.
"If the conflicting parties cannot seize the opportunity to settle the problem using the 'Asean option' there is the possibility that the United Nations Security Council (or some of its members) would come to the conclusion that regional arrangements had failed to address the problem. It doesn't serve anyone's interests if the UNSC concludes that the skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia would pose an international peace and security threat and therefore require the involvement of the UNSC."
While insisting that his task would be a "relentless pursuit of a diplomatic solution" to the Thai-Cambodian problem, Foreign Minister Natalegawa said it's not a question of Cambodia trying to bring the issue back to the UNSC. "It's already on the UNSC's agenda. Cambodia doesn't have to refer the matter back to the UN. The genie is out of the bottle."
He said despite the difficulties caused by the military skirmishes on the Thai-Cambodian border, "I hope both sides can be encouraged to return to the negotiating table … to have the ceasefire re-established and stabilised to enable the deployment of the observer teams and the resumption of diplomatic negotiations."
If Indonesia fails to convince both members to go back to the negotiating table, Asean's standing in the international arena will take a severe beating. The Indonesian foreign minister didn't really say that in so many words but he did hint at that scenario when he told me:
"What if Cambodia takes the issue back to the UN Security Council? Well, we will have to see. It really depends on our capacity to solve the problem regionally. But then again, I don't want to suggest that there is a clear difference between what is regional and global, because they are mutually reinforcing to create conditions conducive to bilateral solutions. So, what is bilateral, regional and global - they are actually supporting one another."
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters here last week: "We have to respect and honour the role and involvement of Indonesia. Thailand is not in a position to embarrass the Indonesian government."
That's all the more reason why Kasit and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Nam Hong will have to convince their respective leaders to hold serious talks here on the side of the Asean Summit, not only to avoid "embarrassing" Asean's current chair, but, more importantly, to refrain from further weakening Asean as a whole.